Networking

Cheat Sheet: Net neutrality

Is the open internet under threat?

Remind me what net neutrality is again…
The basic premise is that all internet traffic should be treated equally by internet access providers – that is, all data packets should be equal and no bits should be prioritised.

Now, the reality is that some IP-based services such as IPTV rely on prioritised packets to work but traffic on the open internet is generally delivered on a 'best effort' basis, with no websites classified as more important than others – and that's a status quo supported by the pro-net-neutrality camp.

The risk seen by those who campaign to preserve net neutrality is that ISPs start favouring certain internet traffic because the owners have paid them to do so, or because they are seeking to promote their own services over a rival's. Then the native 'biodiversity' of the internet is at risk of being turned into the digital equivalent of the average homogenous High Street – becoming a usual suspects line-up of big corporate interests.

So my favourite TV-streaming service gets dumped in the slow lane while another gets all the bandwidth? Let's not go there.
Indeed – that's the fear. Of course it's worth noting that more and more walled gardens of content are springing up online, so the theory of an equal and open internet is not always reflected by the reality.

Examples include social-network services such as Facebook – in which any data users share stays on Facebook and is not necessarily available to the open internet. But the difference between these walled gardens of online content and net neutrality is that web (and mobile) users are still in control on the open internet – they can choose to participate in these gated communities because they like the particular garden or convenience offered by them. But if an ISP blocks access to a web service or type of web traffic they are taking control away from the end user and limiting internet diversity at source.

Outrageous! How can we stop these evil ISPs taking our internets away?
Hold your horses. Let's not get too carried away. The net neutrality debate can get a bit overheated, especially in the US – where the fears of the pro-net-neutrality side are perhaps more justified owing to the dominance of a few big internet providers there. Competition in the UK's broadband market is much healthier, says Ofcom, with sometimes hundreds of ISPs to choose from (albeit not in every corner of the nation).

With this more fertile internet-provider landscape in mind, the UK government says it currently doesn't think any regulation/legislation is needed to enshrine net neutrality in UK law – pointing to the level of competition as a protective check on ISPs to discourage them from abusing their powers. It does, however, stress the need for ISPs to be transparent about any 'traffic management' they carry out on their networks.

Traffic management?
Welcome to the murky world of networks. ISPs can and do control the flow of traffic to individual users on their networks – at peak times they might reduce the bandwidth available to a particular user so that other users' quality of service does not suffer, for instance. They argue that since there is only so much capacity available on their networks it's not fair for a minority of bandwidth-hogging users with a penchant for P2P downloading to degrade the quality of service for the majority of users. By managing the few, they can keep the many happy, they say. But that's just the operator's side of the story.

The many euphemisms for traffic management (see also: traffic shaping and bandwidth throttling, for instance) show up how politicised the pipes have become. While an ISP will invariably say traffic shaping is essential to ensure quality of service for all users of its network, a web user who has high demand for capacity will complain about being throttled to death by their ISP and not getting the service they are paying for. It's all relative.

Most people would agree that managing traffic based on quality of service considerations is understandable. But it is commercially driven traffic management that steps over the net neutrality line – an ISP giving a better service to its own TV-streaming service, for example. At such a point, the neutrality of the internet would have been compromised to further one company's business interests.

But just because people can imagine that happening doesn't mean it will. As previously mentioned, the UK government reckons...

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