John Oliver describes net neutrality as the most boring important issue. More than that, it’s a complex idea that can be difficult to understand without a strong grasp of the architecture of the internet, which is not at all intuitive. An additional barrier to having a measured response is that most of the public discussions about net neutrality conflate it with negotiations over peering agreements (more on that later) and ultimately rest in contracts with unknown terms. The hyperbole surrounding net neutrality may be useful in riling up public sentiment, but the truth seems far more subtle. I want to approach a definition and an understanding of the issues surrounding net neutrality, but this post will only scratch the surface. Despite the technical and legal complexities, this is something worth understanding, since as academic librarians our daily lives and work revolve around internet access for us and for our students.
The most current public debate about net neutrality surrounds the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) ability to regulate internet service providers after a January 2014 court decision struck down the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet Order (PDF). The FCC is currently in an open comment period on a new plan to promote and protect the open internet.
The Communications Act of 1934 (PDF) created the FCC to regulate wire and radio communication. This classified phone companies and similar services as “common carriers”, which means that they are open to all equally. If internet service providers are classified in the same way, this ensures equal access, but for various reasons they are not considered common carriers, which was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 2005. The FCC is now seeking to use section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act (PDF) to regulate internet service providers. Section 706 gave the FCC regulatory authority to expand broadband access, particularly to elementary and high schools, and this piece of it is included in the current rulemaking process.
The legal part of this is confusing to everyone, not least the FCC. We’ll return to that later. But for now, let’s turn our attention to the technical part of net neutrality, starting with one of the most visible spats.
A Tour Through the Internet
I am a Comcast customer for my home internet. Let’s say I want to watch Netflix. How do I get there from my home computer? First comes the traceroute that shows how the request from my computer travels over the physical lines that make up the internet.
C:\Users\MargaretEveryday>tracert netflix.com Tracing route to netflix.com 1 over a maximum of 30 hops: 1 1 ms <1 ms <1 ms 10.0.1.1 2 24 ms 30 ms 37 ms 18.104.22.168 3 43 ms 40 ms 29 ms te-0-4-0-17-sur04.chicago302.il.chicago.comcast. net 2 4 20 ms 32 ms 36 ms te-2-6-0-11-ar01.area4.il.chicago.comcast.net [6 22.214.171.124] 5 33 ms 30 ms 37 ms he-3-14-0-0-cr01.350ecermak.il.ibone.comcast.net 3 6 27 ms 34 ms 30 ms pos-1-4-0-0-pe01.350ecermak.il.ibone.comcast.net 4 7 30 ms 41 ms 54 ms chp-edge-01.inet.qwest.net 5 8 * * * Request timed out. 9 73 ms 69 ms 69 ms 126.96.36.199 10 65 ms 77 ms 96 ms te1-8.csrt-agg01.prod1.netflix.com 6 11 80 ms 81 ms 74 ms www.netflix.com 1 Trace complete.
7-9. Now the request leaves Comcast, and goes out to a Tier 1 internet provider, which owns cables that cross the country. In this case, the cables belong to CenturyLink (which recently purchased Qwest).
Why should Comcast ask Netflix to pay to transmit their data over Comcast’s networks? Understanding this requires a few additional concepts.
Peering is an important concept in the structure of the internet. Peering is a physical link of hardware to hardware between networks in internet exchanges, which are (as pictured above) huge buildings filled with routers connected to each other. 8. Facebook Peering is an example of a very open peering policy. Companies and internet service providers can use internet exchange centers to plug their equipment together directly, and so make their connections faster and more reliable. For websites such as Facebook which have an enormous amount of upload and download traffic, it’s well worth the effort for a small internet service provider to peer with Facebook 9.
Peering relies on some equality of traffic, as the name implies. The various tiers of internet service providers you may have heard of are based on with whom they “peer”. Tier 1 ISPs are large enough that they all peer with each other, and thus form what is usually called the backbone of the internet.
Academic institutions created the internet originally–computer science departments at major universities literally had the switches in their buildings. In the US this was ARPANET, but a variety of networks at academic institutions existed throughout the world. Groups such as Internet2 allow educational, research, and government networks to connect and peer with each other and commercial entities (including Facebook, if the traceroute from my workstation is any indication). Smaller or isolated institutions may rely on a consumer ISP, and what bandwidth is available to them may be limited by geography.
The Last Mile
Consumers, by contrast, are really at the mercy of whatever company dominates in their neighborhoods. Consumers obviously do not have the resources to lay their own fiber optic cables directly to all the websites they use most frequently. They rely on an internet service provider to do the heavy lifting, just as most of us rely on utility companies to get electricity, water, and sewage service (though of course it’s quite possible to live off the grid to a certain extent on all those services depending on where you live). We also don’t build our own roads, and we expect that certain spaces are open for traveling through by anyone. This idea of roads open for all to get from the wider world to arterial streets to local neighborhoods is thus used as an analogy for the internet–if internet service providers (like phone companies) must be common carriers, this ensures the middle and last miles aren’t jammed.
When Peering Goes Bad
Think about how peering works–it requires a roughly equal amount of traffic being sent and received through peered networks, or at least an amount of traffic to which both parties can agree. This is the problem with Netflix. Unlike big companies such as Facebook, and especially Google, Netflix is not trying to build its own network. It relies on content delivery services and internet backbone providers to get content from its servers (all hosted on Amazon Web Services) to consumers. But Netflix only sends traffic, it doesn’t take traffic, and this is the basis of most of the legal battles going on with internet service providers that service the “last mile”.
The Netflix/Comcast trouble started in 2010, when Netflix contracted with Level 3 for content delivery. Comcast claimed that Level 3 was relying on a peering relationship that was no longer valid with this increase in traffic, no matter who was sending it. (See this article for complete details.) Level 3, incidentally, accused another Tier 1 provider, Cogent, of overstepping their settlement-free peering agreement back in 2005, and cut them off for a short time, which cut pieces of the internet off from each other.
Netflix tried various arrangements, but ultimately negotiated with Comcast to pay for direct access to their last mile networks through internet exchanges, one of which is illustrated above in steps 4-6. This seems to be the most reasonable course of action for Netflix to get their outbound content over networks, since they really don’t have the ability to do settlement-free peering. Of course, Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, didn’t see it that way. But for most cases, settlement-free peering is still the only way the internet can actually work, and while we may not see the agreements that make this happen, it won’t be going anywhere. In this case, Comcast was not offering Netflix paid prioritization of its content, it was negotiating for delivery of the content at all. This might seem equally wrong, but someone has to pay for the bandwidth, and why shouldn’t Netflix pay for it?
What Should We Do?
If companies want to connect with each other or build their own network connections, they can do under whatever terms work best for them. The problem would be if certain companies were using the same lines that everyone was using but their packets got preferential treatment. The imperfect road analogy works well enough for these purposes. When a firetruck, police car, and ambulance are racing through traffic with sirens blazing, we are usually ok with the resulting traffic jam since we can see this requires that speed for an emergency situation. But how do we feel when we suspect a single police car has turned on a siren just to cut in line to get to lunch faster? Or a funeral procession blocks traffic? Or an elected official has a motorcade? Or a block party? These situations are regulated by government authorities, but we may or may not like that these uses of public ways are being allowed and causing our own travel to slow down. Going further, it is clearly illegal for a private company to block a public road and charge a high rate for faster travel, but imagine if no governmental agency had the power to regulate this? The FCC is attempting to make sure they have those regulatory powers.
That said it doesn’t seem like anyone is actually planning to offer paid prioritization. Even Comcast claims “no company has had a stronger commitment to openness of the Internet…” and that they have no plans of offering such a service . I find it unlikely that we will face a situation that Barbara Stripling describes as “prioritizing Mickey Mouse and Jennifer Lawrence over William Shakespeare and Teddy Roosevelt.”
I certainly won’t advocate against treating ISPs as common carriers–my impression is that this is what the 1996 Telecommunications Act was trying to get at, though the legal issues are confounding. However, a larger problem facing libraries (not so much large academics, but smaller academics and publics) is the digital divide. If there’s no fiber optic line to a town, there isn’t going to be broadband access, and an internet service provider has no business incentive to create a line for a small town that may not generate a lot of revenue. I think we need to remain vigilant about ensuring that everyone has access to the internet at all or at a fast speed, and not get too sidetracked about theoretical future possible malfeasance by internet service providers. These points are included in the FCC’s proposal, but are not receiving most of the attention, despite the fact that they are given explicit regulatory authority to do this.
Public comments are open at the FCC’s website until July 15, so take the opportunity to leave a comment about Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet, and also consider comments on E-rate and broadband access, which is another topic the FCC is currently considering. (You can read ALA’s proposal about this here (PDF).)