Net neutrality

The debate over net neutrality is frustrating, since so few people seem to know what they are talking about. This AP article (“FCC chief says no need for new regulation of the Internet”) is a good example:

The hearing was called at a time when the issue of “network neutrality”—the principle that people should be able to go where they choose on the Internet without interference from network owners—has heated up.

(Via Instapundit.)

This is exactly not what network neutrality is about. The main thing to remember is the Internet is not, contrary to popular opinion, a bunch of wires. The Internet is a protocol. Specifically, the Internet Protocol (IP) is a way to route packets over a variety of networks.

An important property of IP is it provides best effort delivery. That means that sometimes it drops packets, typically when it gets too much traffic. Indeed, there is no way to prevent this in a packet-switched network, unless you can prevent routers from getting too much traffic, which IP does not do. If you want reliable delivery, you need to layer another protocol (such as TCP) on top of IP.

IP does not dictate any rules regarding how a router chooses which packets to drop. (This is what network neutrality supporters want to change.) Typically it chooses them arbitrarily. But, it could do something more sensible, based on the nature of the packets. Some packets are more important than others. For example, a video stream typically contains some keyframes and various other frames that depend on the latest keyframe. Dropping one of the latter frames is no big deal, but dropping a keyframe loses you a chunk of video. Therefore, we would like it if our router kept keyframes in preference to non-keyframes.

Furthermore, there’s been research on Quality of Service, by which we might somehow reserve a certain level of network performance. QoS is an active research area, but one thing is for certain, to achieve it we definitely need to discriminate between packets.

Network neutrality advocates are concerned that the people who own the routers might choose to discriminate between packets on some basis that’s bad, like “Google didn’t pay me any money, so I’ll deliver their packets slowly or not at all.” The thing is, exactly no one is proposing to do this. Were any ISP to do it (and it is the ISPs that people seem particularly concerned about), they would immediately lose their customers to another ISP that did not.

But what an ISP might do is establish some preferences between different sorts of traffic; for example to prefer interactive traffic over large downloads. (According to the article, Comcast has done this.) Someday, they might even implement Quality of Service. This is all for the good. It would be a tragedy if network neutrality were to prevent it.

Google argues for neutrality this way:

The broadband carriers should not be permitted to use their market power to discriminate against competing applications or content.

If I had ever heard of such a thing happening, I might feel differently. Until then, network neutrality is a solution to a non-existent problem, and one that, if not implemented very carefully, could be very harmful to the development of the Internet. Readers of this blog will not be surprised that I would estimate the likelihood of Congress being so careful at roughly zero.

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