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Who said the net was fair?
[August 11, 2006]

Who said the net was fair?

(New Scientist Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) FOR those who fear for the internet's future as an information highway to which everyone has equal access, these are worrying times. "Without a clear policy preserving the neutrality of the internet and without tough sanctions against those who would discriminate, [it] will be forever changed for the worse," wrote Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon on 28 June. He was trying to persuade the US Senate to adopt legislation that would require all bits to be routed over the internet with equal priority. The legislation an amendment to the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Bill could prevent telecommunications companies from charging extra for a priority service. On 9 June, the US House of Representatives voted against it, and now the legislation awaits a vote in the Senate.

Wyden and other proponents of "net neutrality", including internet giants Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, claim that without this legislation the internet will be transformed from an innovation-friendly, global free-for-all into a kind of commercial hell, in which only content provided by large corporations and broadband providers survives (see New Scientist

, 24 June, p 30). They could be right, up to a point. Broadband providers may soon have the ability to block content that competes with their own, and web start-ups may find it harder to compete with larger, established players.

What the net neutralists fail to appreciate, however, is that the internet is already far from a level playing field. Many large websites already pay for speedier delivery of data. Furthermore, many innovative, progressive things happen on the internet precisely because bits are not always treated equally. In some cases, net neutrality may not even be desirable.

This debate has been hotting up since the middle of last year, when the US Federal Communications Commission lobbied by telecommunications and cable industries reclassified broadband providers as "information service providers". Up to then, broadband providers such as Verizon, which ferry data packets from servers to the internet's backbone and from the backbone to the users, were not allowed to block packets. Then in October, two internet backbone service providers AT&T and MCI, which ferry data packets over long distances merged with two major broadband providers SBC and Verizon respectively for the first time giving individual companies end-to-end control over the packets. Supporters of net neutrality fear that this will allow the companies to charge their richer clients to skip data packets to the front of the queue. They warn that small start-ups offering an innovative service may fail to attract customers simply because they cannot afford to pay for pages to download as fast as those of their large competitors.

Yet prioritising content over the web is nothing new. Large websites have been paying for speedier delivery of their data for eight years. Unbeknownst to many users, 15 per cent of all internet traffic more than 1 billion hits a day is sent to the web user's computer not from the website that the user is visiting but from servers owned by a company called Akamai in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Akamai stores the contents of its clients' websites on a network of 20,000 servers spread over 70 countries, and scans the internet every few seconds to pinpoint areas of congestion. When a web surfer types in the URL of one of those sites Apple, Best Buy, CNN, Microsoft and Yahoo are all clients the request goes straight to Akamai, which calculates which of its servers can provide the fastest delivery of the site's content. This vastly speeds things up, and means someone in Japan can do a Yahoo search as quickly as someone in California. It makes web browsing smoother, and is a powerful weapon against denial of service attacks aimed at a company's own servers. It also means that the level playing field that net neutralists say we are about to lose has never really existed.

If the internet has never been neutral, what does that say about innovation online? Does an uneven playing field interfere with development? Not necessarily. Some internet innovations depend on it not being neutral. Take spam filtering. Broadband providers routinely inspect and block packets that contain spam or viruses. Those who drafted the net neutrality legislation say it would still allow the blocking of malicious packets, but Andrew Odlyzko of the Digital Technology Center at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis points out that this could be difficult to enforce. "How do you define a spammer?" he asks. "Any kind of net neutrality legislation would interfere with at least a few of the common practices on the internet today." Another example is the way networks that ferry data around a business prioritise video packets that can be spoilt by even a small delay.

This is the crucial point. While Akamai, spam filters and some forms of packet prioritisation and blocking make the net less neutral, they also make it vastly more useful and enjoyable.

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