The Great Internet Divide

Net Neutrality. Many have heard the term, but few agree on what it means. The term has been bandied about by lawmakers all over, and bent to do whatever they want.

What Net Neutrality really comes down to is freedom of internet traffic. The FCC is (apparently) looking at setting up rules making all internet traffic have to be handled equally by every American ISP. That’s basically how the internet is now, and this would seek to keep things that way.

Many people never stop to think about the fact that the internet is really a giant network wholly owned by telecom companies, and they can do whatever they like with it. Net neutrality seeks to regulate what they can do to restrict access to their giant networks, and they do not like the idea.

The internet is an important part of what almost all of us do every day. We send emails, surf to web pages, and check our online bank accounts. What would you do if that traffic were unable to get where you wanted it to go?

Although we have not heard of plans to do so yet, the telecom companies have the ability to set up exclusivity contracts with network end providers to make extra money. It’s tough to imagine, but roll with me here for a moment.

Let’s say I’m a mythical telecom company called All Internet Traffic (AIT) and I want to make enough money to swim in. I look at where everyone on the internet goes all the time, and decide to call the world’s largest search company, Biggle. I get Biggle to sign an exclusivity contract with me, where they will connect only to my network. Anyone connecting to Biggle has to go through me. In return, Biggle doesn’t have to pay a dime for their internet hookups.

In the real world, this isn’t done exclusively (yet) and is done by a method called Peering. Peering is where big telecom companies connect their networks together and just let traffic pass from one network to another freely. They work together to make the internet happen, and don’t charge each other for it. However, let’s go back to my example.

Now, AIT (that’s me) has all traffic to Biggle passing over its network. It’s a lot of traffic! I decide it’s so much traffic that my network can’t easily handle it, and I need to do some upgrades. That’s going to cost millions of dollars and take months, so for now, I decide to go with what I have and implement QoS instead. However, I’m a giant evil telecom and don’t want to piss off my customers, so I decide to do selective QoS. QoS means Quality of Service, and is a method whereby a network acts as a traffic cop. It speeds up some traffic by slowing down other traffic. In selective QoS, it does it by looking at certain kinds of traffic. In this case, I’ll slow down traffic heading to Biggle from other telecoms, and let my own customers go there at full speed. If the other telecoms don’t like it, they can pay me extra money to have me speed up their traffic. If the other telecoms get belligerent about it, I might even just stop all traffic from them headed to Biggle. Because I can.

This scenario can easily go the other way. If two retailers are connected to the same ISP, and one is a super mega mart, and the other is a hometown mom and pop place, the super mega mart could pay extra to the ISPs to have traffic flow to them faster.

Please note this is not the same as bandwidth. The “speed” you’re thinking of there is actually the amount of data that can be sent at one time over you connection to your ISP. QoS actually deals with how fast information traverses the network…and in some cases, if it will ever even arrive.

The telecoms say that Net Neutrality isn’t needed because they’re never going to implement schemes such as the one I laid out above. They’re asking you to trust them.

I ask you to remember how well that has worked in the past. Every time a large corporation has asked us to trust them, we’ve gotten the shaft so they can make more money.

Really think it won’t happen? Comcast has already enabled deep packet inspection and used it to slow Peer to Peer bittorrent traffic. Yes, they looked at every packet of information that crossed their network to see what it was, and slow it if it was something they didn’t like.

Also, don’t be fooled by things like the Internet Freedom Act. The clever title hides the fact that this would actually place the power directly in the hands of the telecoms by making it so the FCC can’t mandate anything regarding the internet.

This is a big issue, impacting how we use the internet on a daily basis. No matter what side of things you come down on, you need to keep an eye on it.

See you next Monday. Hopefully you can still get to BKI across a nice, open internet.


~ by Benjamin Kenneally on January 19, 2010.

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