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Network Neutrality Is a Political, Not Technical, Problem

We’ve mentioned Network Neutrality several times before on the Knetwork Knowledge Blog, but I wanted to take another look at it since it’s back in the news with Wednesday’s planned protests by “” – an artificial “Internet Slowdown” that will create symbolic “loading” symbols and artificially slow down page loading. Participating websites include Kickstarter, Reddit, Foursquare, Vimeo, Namecheap, and others. 

Packet Design has differing opinions on the issue of network neutrality. This is a bit surprising when you consider network neutrality as a technical issue, because you would expect that the engineering and mathematics would speak for themselves. It should be relatively easy to prove, from a technological standpoint, whether a neutral or particular non-neutral Internet scheme would be “better.” 

But the minute you ask “better for whom?” you start to realize that network neutrality is not a technical problem. It is a political problem that happens to involve technology. 

As our CTO Cengiz Alaettinoglu said in “Hot Potatoes and Network Neutrality,” BGP and IGP routing delivers packets to the next autonomous system (AS) in the route as soon as possible. This does not guarantee that all networks are to share in the cost of connecting data equally; one service provider in an end-to-end packet delivery could carry data only a few feet across the network while another might carry data a thousand miles. 

Cengiz said that “if I [as a consumer] am not paying [my ISP] enough to cover their costs and profit margins, then they should increase their prices or put capacity limits on my connection,” rather than trying to charge content providers, like Netflix or Amazon, to ensure that their packets are delivered reliably. I agree with most of that sentiment (although I don’t think capacity limits effectively solve congestion problems, and create some of the same problems as non-neutral networks). 

But network neutrality has broader implications than “who has to pay for this asymmetric bandwidth?” 

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is entirely technologically possible to create a non-neutral Internet that more fairly distributes costs, provides better service to end users, and keeps costs involved to the minimum. We already know that performance improvements can be found within intranets and WANs by prioritizing certain data into higher quality-of-service (QoS) tiers, and indeed, the monitoring of the effects of QoS changes is one of the things (though not the only thing) that a network monitoring solution such as Route Explorer was designed to do.

Technologically possible. But not politically possible. If we had a non-neutral network, then someone, somewhere has to make the decision about who gets the best service, and who does not. 

If we leave that decision about how to prioritize network services in the hands of private corporations, packet prioritization will not necessarily be used to benefit the end users, but to benefit the private corporations. This is not because “corporations are evil” or that cable companies hate happiness and fun. Maximizing profit is what corporations do. It is the reason for their existence, and they are required to do whatever is legally permissible in order to maximize that profit. 

This would not be a problem if “providing the best service to end users” was the best way to maximize profit, but most broadband ISPs have conflicting interests (for example, selling cable television), and exist in non-competitive markets, where only one or two choices for broadband are possible. That means that the most profitable companies will be the ones who charge the most and keep their costs the lowest – not necessarily who provide the best service for the price. 

The other alternative would be to let the government decide how to prioritize network services. I don’t think this is workable, because network packet prioritization is such a complex technical subject. Any regulation meant to address it would also likely be complex, prone to abuse through loopholes, and expensive for companies to comply with or even to plan around. It is, I suppose, possible that the U.S. government wouldn’t mess this up. But that is extremely unlikely.

The truth is, the only way we can preserve an Internet where new, disruptive companies are free to innovate, where information can travel from person to person without requiring the approval of a middleman, and where we can guarantee end-to-end performance for Internet-based applications, is to require the continued neutrality of the Internet.


Brian Boyko is a technology blogger, politics blogger, and contributor to the Knowledge Knetwork Blog. His opinion here is not necessarily the viewpoint of all of the employees of Packet Design.

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