Tech + Engineering

30
Jun

What We Mean When We Talk About Net Neutrality

A big chunk of the recent debate over net neutrality has centered on the idea that “all bits are created equal”—that data should be treated exactly the same no matter where it comes from. The fear is that without explicit rules preventing them, big internet service providers like Comcast might sell companies like Google and Facebook spots in “internet fast lanes,” giving their data an edge over smaller startups that can’t pony up.

fast-lane-internet
Public discussion of net neutrality has focused on internet "fast lanes," but that idea is based on an old model of the internet.

This original concept of net neutrality was thought up back in the days when data from content providers went straight into a giant “internet backbone” of data centers. From there, thousands of competing ISPs carried that data out to computers around the world. The problem is that this model of the internet stopped being accurate around the turn of the century. And understanding how the net actually works these days is the first step in figuring out how to deal with it.

Here’s Robert McMillan, writing for Wired:

“Here in the year 2014, complaints about a fast-lane don’t make much sense. Today, privileged companies—including Google, Facebook, and Netflix—already benefit from what are essentially internet fast lanes, and this has been the case for years. Such web giants—and others—now have direct connections to big ISPs like Comcast and Verizon, and they run dedicated computer servers deep inside these ISPs. In technical lingo, these are known as “peering connections” and “content delivery servers,” and they’re a vital part of the way the internet works.”

“Fast lane is how the internet is built today,” says Craig Labovitz, who, as the CEO of DeepField Networks, an outfit whose sole mission is to track how companies build internet infrastructure, probably knows more about the design of the modern internet than anyone else. And many other internet experts agree with him. “The net neutrality debate has got many facets to it, and most of the points of the debate are artificial, distracting, and based on an incorrect mental model on how the internet works,” says Dave Taht, a developer of open-source networking software.

In short, the whole reason you can stream an uninterrupted House of Cards marathon is because Netflix has effectively set up a “fast lane” between itself and your ISP. That, by itself, isn’t necessarily a problem—in theory, any company that is big enough to really need a peering connection would have the money to build one.

But, if you’re like 96% of Americans, you have access to only one or two internet service providers. That means Netflix has no choice but to peer with those ISPs in order to reach your computer, meaning the IPSs could exert a disconcerting amount of control over Netflix’s connection speeds.

The takeaway, McMillan writes, is that we need to shift our attention from over-simplified and outdated models of the internet and focus on promoting healthy competition among internet service providers, helping to preserve the spirit of net neutrality. Which is what people are really fighting for, anyway.