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Net Neutrality

22 Dec 2010

Net neutrality is the proposition that internet service providers should provide equal access to all information from any source. Among the big questions has been whether wireless internet access should be treated differently than wired.

Critics say net neutrality will make it difficult to ensure quality of service for VoIP (voice data transmitted over the internet) and that heavy bandwidth sites, like Youtube or Netflix, should pay for using the infrastructure.

Supporters argue that it is precisely the unrestricted access to any online service that has made the internet what it is. Anyone is free to create a new service and users can choose to use it based only on the quality, not the price or speed.

Wired got hold of a plan outlining how, without net neutrality, wireless providers could charge extra for using Facebook, Skype or Youtube:

In this case, a customer can watch a 15-minute preview of a movie for free. If she doesn’t order the film, the company that served up the film would pay the carrier for the bandwidth used. But if the customer pays to watch the movie, then the ISP gets a cut of the money paid to the online movie service.

Compare that to the current de facto state of affairs for broadband connections, where a customer pays the cable company or wireless provider to connect them to the internet, the online movie service pays to connect to the internet, and the network’s only role is to connect the two.

Yesterday the FCC voted on the net neutrality issue, adopting a very vague version. Particularly troubling, however, is that they exempt wireless access from most of the rules. Politico reports:

Under the order, broadband providers will be required to disclose their network management activities to consumers. Traditional wired broadband providers may not unreasonably discriminate against any lawful traffic, though no such rule will be put in place for wireless providers, which public interest groups and some Internet companies like Skype and eBay say will not do enough to protect wireless customers.

The issue is important to Europe as well. Not only will the US policy effect European access to US sites and vice versa but the decision will likely have an impact on politicians in Europe. British communications minister Ed Valzey recently sparked debate in the UK, saying ISPs should be allowed to differentiate content. The Guardian comments:

For those not paying close attention, the basic theory of the internet was that all packets, all data was created equal, which means that a pirated copy of Hey Jude can fly around the network with the same speed as a page of your favorite digital newspaper. All of which is fine in an era of bandwidth plenty, but as the BBC iPlayer and YouTube hog traffic, they start to cause problems. […]

The fear, of course, is that this leads to a world where – say – the Daily Mail’s web pages arrive more quickly than the Mirror’s because one publisher is willing to pay BT more for a better deal. Or where the BBC’s online video crawls and becomes no fun to use, while Sky speeds along.

Even if the issue quickly becomes technical and complex, it is something everyone should take a stance on or the internet may change forever. I’ll let Steve Wozniak have the last word:

The early Internet was so accidental, it also was free and open in this sense. The Internet has become as important as anything man has ever created. But those freedoms are being chipped away. Please, I beg you, open your senses to the will of the people to keep the Internet as free as possible.