Thursday, May 15, 2008


A word about “net neutrality”

As the battles about “net neutrality” wage on, I note that I often see the concept mischaracterized, somewhat. So I’d like to make a brief point about what net neutrality is... and isn’t.

Net neutrality doesn’t mean that you, the user, can do anything you want, go anywhere you want, transfer any amount of data you want, without “interference” from your service provider. We all have service agreements, and we all have to live within them. And ISPs have the right to limit your usage to the terms of your service agreement, and to provide fair service to all their customers.

That means that placing limitations on data rates, total data volume, hit rates on hosted web sites, and that sort of thing, are reasonable and expected, and don’t violate net neutrality, per se. If your ISP takes action against you because you’re using BitTorrent and transferring so much data that it exceeds your service agreement and interferes with the service to other customers, they’re within their rights. On the other hand, if they take action simply because they don’t like BitTorrent, that’s bad.

The concept of net neutrality is that your access to the Internet should not be limited by what equipment you choose to use, what software or protocols you choose to use, or what services, servers, or web sites you choose to use... as long as things are working properly and you’re abiding by the terms of your service agreement.

Now, that said, there’s plenty of room for tricky bits there.

Most obviously, service providers have started adjusting their service agreements to give them more leeway in limiting things like BitTorrent. Much of this is related to the following “grey area”: is it ethical, or does it violate net neutrality, to allow you to exceed your service agreement sometimes?

Suppose your service agreement says that you can transfer no more than 20 megabytes per hour at speeds of up to 3 megabits per second. Note, especially, that there’s no minimum speed quoted, and, in fact, most service agreements now state that for residential service, “service availability, speed and uninterrupted service not guaranteed.”[1] Given that service agreement, assume that you use BitTorrent to download videos, transferring as much as 500 megabytes an hour sometimes over a period of at least two weeks. Which of these fall within acceptable net neutrality principles, and which do not?:

  1. Your ISP suspends your service.
  2. Your ISP takes steps to block your use of peer-to-peer protocols.
  3. Your ISP slows your data rate to 100 kilobits per second.
  4. Your ISP slows your data rate to 100 kilobits per second, but still gives you 3 megabits per second for normal email and web browsing.
  5. When your ISP sees you transferring too much data from certain Internet addresses, it blocks your access to those addresses.
  6. I use the same ISP, which provides a for-pay video download service, and I also download 500 megabytes an hour, but from the ISP’s download service. I have the same service agreement as you do, but the ISP takes action against you and not against me.
I put those in roughly increasing order of dubiousness, though others might disagree with the order (and some might switch 2 and 3, in particular).

The main ethical question that’s up in the air is whether it’s OK to sell you restrictive terms of service, and then relax them in “approved” cases. That’s clearly not “neutral”... but would you complain if you were paying for certain service, and were given extra service “for free” sometimes?

It’s clear that we do that all the time in the real, non-Internet world. We take discounts all the time for buying whatever product a store is pushing this week — we call it “a sale”. Far from even making an attempt to be neutral, when a store puts something on sale it’s unabashedly encouraging you to use one product over another.

Is it so wrong to do that on the Internet too? Why couldn’t Verizon make a deal with Borders, say, that encouraged you to buy from them instead of from Barnes and Noble or Amazon? Only, rather than having a coupon to save money, you got better Internet service as your incentive.

The trouble is that that plan takes us to the edge of that slippery slope. It’s too easy for that to lead to de facto censorship, where the differing levels of service effectively block access to certain Internet services. The ISPs, here, are providing something more analogous to roads than to anything else, and it’s their responsibility to keep the roads clear, and not to try to control where you go by artificially limiting access to the roads.

Imagine if your town gave favour to some businesses, at the expense of others, by adjusting speed limits, traffic enforcement, and road construction schedules to make it hard or impossible to get to the disfavoured merchants. That’d be wrong, and you can imagine the lawsuits that would ensue — that do ensue when cases like this become known.

[1] Quoted from Verizon’s service agreement; others are similar.

1 comment:

briwei said...

Good analysis of a tricky topic. It's especially difficult since people can't really vote with their feet. Most people have only one or two choices for providers. So, there is no incentive to meet the needs of the community.