According to the Oxford Dictionary, net neutrality is “the principle that internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites.” Simply put, net neutrality ensures that service providers don’t give preferential treatment to websites and content providers they happen to favor, especially concerning bandwidth and connection speeds.
Prioritization and Fairness
Internet service providers (ISPs) are currently in the middle of a hotly contested debate surrounding the concept of net neutrality, and the outcome of this discussion has potential to directly impact the way you connect to and experience the internet.
When a perceived economic value exists, internet service providers have censored traffic, shaped network priority, and outright blocked legal internet resources. Although net neutrality is currently the prevailing norm, many segments of the industry are advocating a system of internet access based on free-market principles. The new FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, has proposed a classification change that removes broadband providers from the requirements of net neutrality.
This proposal moves ISPs from the Title II classification back into Title I and deals a setback to net neutrality rules instituted by the previous FCC Chairman. Title I does not provide for the regulation of internet service providers in the same manner as Title II and would exempt the ISPs from net neutrality and privacy rules.
Net neutrality can be compared to the public highway system. Imagine that data packets are like cars. Car A gets onto the interstate along with Cars B, C and D—they all share the roadway and assuming that each car has equal access to all lanes and that each car abides by the speed limit, then each car should arrive at a common destination at the same time.
Too many cars on the road, however, causes congestion and will slow traffic. Nonetheless, most highway systems don’t discriminate by the type of vehicle driven, where the car came, or its destination. Each car is free to use any lane of its choosing, with its freedom of movement restricted only by the number of other cars on the road, as well as regulations, such as speed limits, that apply equally to all cars.
Paid prioritization can be thought of like toll roads with limited access to only authorized cars. Should special treatment of certain cars be allowed? Many highways already allocate lanes solely for emergency vehicles or HOV cars. While this may be good public policy, some highway systems go a step further and reward anyone willing to pay for preferential treatment in the form of toll roads.
Want to get to your destination faster? Then pay an extra fee and bypass traffic. This system is only perceived as fair to the extent it’s not widespread, as toll roads are usually privately-owned and operated. Could a similar system work inside of the public internet?
The internet could become more congested in the future so “paid prioritization” of toll roads could enable you to bypass traffic jams, ensuring the success of a new product launch or internet operating protocol. However, producers and consumers of content tend to want the open access to the network without prioritization. They hold firm to the idea that free speech and freedom of expression are in jeopardy because telecommunications companies that both produce content and own the networks over which that content is provided have a vested interest in favoring their content over that of competitors.
While there may be some truth to this, more generally telecommunication companies providing the actual connectivity have an interest in paid prioritization because they can sell bandwidth to the highest bidder. In the business of selling bandwidth and access, they see net neutrality as a regulation that prevents their ability to operate and optimize their networks.
What’s at Stake?
Connectivity providers assume responsibility for the integrity of the systems under their stewardship. Is it fair for them to discard malicious traffic? Slow down bandwidth hogs that affect other customers?
Apparently, this area must be regulated. If several cars drove onto the interstate system and deliberately caused traffic issues by stopping in the middle of the road or hitting other vehicles, then a response is needed. Much the same can be said for network operators.
Should the connectivity providers be the ones who police network use? To an extent, yes. Guided by a patchwork of laws and regulations, today’s connectivity providers have broad discretion in operating their networks. This is evident in the service degradation experienced by network users when a significant amount of P2P, or peer-to-peer, traffic traverses.
P2P traffic is generated when two network nodes connect to each other over a large number of simultaneous connections. This is equivalent to putting thousands of cars on the road, each one racing to a single destination. This could be disruptive to normal traffic when fewer cars would be sufficient.
A fair method of regulating traffic while simultaneously allowing connectivity providers the ability to manage their networks must be found. Data packets, in general, should not be prioritized on neutral networks unless they are disruptive, malicious, or relate to emergency communications.
As internet public policy is made, the very nature of the way we interact on public networks is at risk of a disruption. The internet should be accessible to the general population without interference based on market activity and profit pressure, particularly as it’s become a virtual necessity in today’s digital world. The creation of internet access tiers is a real danger and could stifle innovation and freedom of expression. Net neutrality should be our reality.
Do you have anything to add? I welcome your feedback and ideas about net neutrality.