You have to hate it when CNN brings in people who are so obviously not qualified to talk about a subject and just leave the viewer dazed and confused as a result. This interview about net neutrality is my case in point. Net neutrality is only partially about bandwidth prioritization. So let’s try to see if we can set the record straight.

Net neutrality is about fair and equal access to information free of undue influence by governments and corporations regardless of race, creed, colour, economic status, etc. Wikipedia also puts it as follows, “Network neutrality is a principle proposed for user access networks participating in the Internet that advocates no restrictions by Internet Service Providers and governments on content, sites, platforms, on the kinds of equipment that may be attached, and no restrictions on the modes of communication allowed.” 

The issue has never been about the prioritization of TCP/IP services. In fact, voice over IP (VOIP), is generally given higher priority in most networking applications due to the requirement that data needs to be transmitted in “real-time” compared to other services. For example, if an image on a web page fails to load due to a transmission error, the router simply calls for that piece of information over again and if it takes an extra 300ms (milliseconds) for that to happen then its really no big loss. Further, if the image arrives out of sync with the rest of the web page it again is no big loss as the image is simply rendered at the point in time all the information becomes available. However the same type of delay on a VOIP call doesn’t work because all the data has to be streamed in a very specific order in order to be understood.

It would be like trying listen to a conversation to all words where the are randomly mixed.

See? – Doesn’t fly. So VOIP phone calls are given higher priority than data and for very good reason. In fact the same logic can and does apply to other types of applications and in general there is consensus as to which pieces of Internet traffic should be allocated to the fast lanes compared to slower lanes. The fact that this is controlled more by the hardware applications on each end of the transmission line is also of major benefit because it means the ISPs are not really in control of this but rather it is a function of specific types of data and the industry standards by which that type of data is agreed to be streamed at.

One of the core problems however is this idea of bandwidth throttling, which is controlled at the ISP level. Bandwidth throttling is a process whereby the ISP can control how much data, what types of data, and how fast that data is transmitted through their network. So while the industry may agree that VOIP traffic should be given priority over other types of traffic, an ISP can elect to “throttle back” the speed, or in some cases to block that type of traffic altogether.

Now this is really where net neutrality people really get their backs up. The expectation by people connected to the Internet is that if you are paying for a high-speed connection to the Internet (say 6 Mb/s download and 1 Mb/s upload), then there should be no restrictions on what you put on either end of that connection. Further if you are paying for a given amount of bandwidth (50 Gb/mth) then so long as you are under your cap again there should be no restrictions. Herein comes the rub. If everyone were to max out their connections all the time then essentially it would overload the network of most ISPs. While we sign contracts saying this is what we are suppose to be getting, quite often an ISP will either cut back or cancel an account that is actually using the connection to its maximum potential all the time. This is because ISPs rarely build capacity in accordance to what they are contracted to provide, but rather to what the aggregate usage is across all users of the system. That could be in some cases as low as 20% of the total contracted service levels.

Since an ISP is under no obligation to identify how large their network is, rather than put in more capacity, an ISP may elect to use other mechanisms first to address the increase usage of their system before purchasing more capacity.

Bandwidth throttling is one way to do this. In principle, what it allows an ISP to do is to narrow the amount of traffic going to each customer during peak periods so that, while you may not get your maximum allowable bandwidth, at least what bandwidth you do get will be stable and less error prone. All well and good. However a number of ISPs are using this same technology to restrict certain types of traffic all the time. Bit torrents for example where people have the opportunity to download large files (movies, music, etc) over an extended period of time. P2P file sharing is another.

ISPs are making these decisions not out of any real necessity to control bandwidth but rather are essentially “taxing” those services, which have both legitimate and illegitimate purposes, in order to upsell their services or to develop additional revenue streams for something that should be “neutral” access.

The situation becomes worse when you add in the fact that content on the Internet is also being policed to the point where people do not have the right to choose what content they access. Anyone from Canada knows, for example, that Hulu is not accessible and yet it is a free service to anyone connect to an IP address based in the US. Similar thing with some content provided by the BBC.

The problem with this type of policing is that it is the slippery slope of creating classes of people who have or don’t have access to specific information and services. People that support net neutrality argue that information in any form should be accessible and that governments and ISPs should not have the right to tell us what we can or cannot see based on geography, economic status or any other type of profiling mechanisms. It is a form of censorship which no longer has a role in a world where one can go from Toronto to London in 6-8 hours. It is a means of trying to establish boarders where none should exist.

Look at it this way – Cable companies may have a monopoly in specific markets that they don’t want Hulu or the BBC intruding on by offering free services across the Internet. However there is nothing illegal about me travelling to the UK or the US and watching non-Canadian TV while I’m there. In fact there is nothing being broadcast, for the most part, that is illegal or morally reprehensible about any of this content nor is it against the law in Canada. So if technically I’m legally entitled to view this material, and if the copyright owners want to provide this material free of charge, then why should I not be allowed access in Canada?

The answer is I should be allowed. If the cable companies up here cannot provide services I want then I should be free to access those services wherever they exist in the world if they are being streamed to the world wide web without restriction by the copyright holders. However that choice isn’t mine. I have no input into that choice. I have no reprentation as to influcing future choices of this type. And the same goes for people around the world. It doesn’t matter wether you are in Canada, US, UK, or the EU – the ability to influence these choices is completely out of your control.

Which is why the principle of net neutrality is so critically important. It establishes the world wide right to freedom of thought and freedom of expression regardless of the media used to convey those ideals. There is nothing more basic that being able to have freedom over where your thoughts and ideas may take you independent of any government or corporate entity and ensures that such freedoms are free of undue taxation or limitation without representation. It is as fundamental a right as breathing. When there is no mechanism available to provide representation to people to influence outcomes associated with fundamental human freedoms, then it is contingent on everyone to establish an open systems approach least we abdicate our rights as individuals to a series of fractured dictatorships for which we will have no recourse when it really matters. (okay you can inhale now)

No one is really losing sleep over not being able to access Hulu or slow bit torrents. It is what the implications of these restrictions mean as a culture which should keep you up at night.

– Kevin Feenan

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