Thoughts on Net Neutrality

With the FCC’s rules being struck down and arguments between Netflix/Cogent/Comcast/Verizon in the news lately, I thought this would be a good time to revisit net neutrality. I’ve generally been in favor of the idea ever since I heard about the issue (less restrictions on content creators and users of the Internet overall is a good thing), but I’ve never stopped to really think about all the details, and having been studying computer networks for the last couple of years, I figure this is as good a time as any to analyze the issue and come up with a more concrete and well-thought-out opinion.

The Issue

First off, for those who aren’t familiar, what is net neutrality, and what’s the whole debate about? At a high level, net neutrality is the principle that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally by those who carry that traffic from one place to another. So no matter if you’re browsing Wikipedia, listening to music on Pandora, or watching movies on Netflix, all of the networks between you and the computers serving your content should treat your packets the same (for some definition of “the same”—more on that later).

The Internet started with this principle (at least understood, if not explicitly stated by early members), and carriers have largely followed it ever since. However, with the rise of bandwidth-heavy applications like streaming video and peer-to-peer file sharing, carriers are looking for more ways to ease the load on their saturated networks. One of the proposed methods is to throttle certain types of traffic in preference to others, based on criteria like the type or source of the content. Even past that point, many are worried that ISPs will actually start charging users to access certain sites, or that they will slow certain sites down to a crawl unless the customer pays up for “fast lane” access to that site. Alternatively, there’s also the possibility that ISPs charge the content providers themselves for the right to have their traffic carried to users, since certain providers (e.g. Netflix, YouTube) take up a large fraction of the available bandwidth. For example, in 2005, CEO of SBC Edward Whitacre stated in an interview that companies like Google, Yahoo! and Vonage would like to “use my pipes free, but I ain’t going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it.” This requirement to pay for access to users also brings up the fear that ISPs will start blocking or throttling services that compete with their own (e.g. Comcast slowing down Netflix to convince customers to use its own Xfinity video streaming).

Are these fears well-founded? Well, perhaps. In the US, we haven’t seen any cases of an ISP outright blocking a legal website (to my knowledge), but back in 2007, it was discovered that Comcast was throttling BitTorrent traffic to essentially unusable levels because of the load it caused on their network. An agreement was eventually reached, but many worry that this sort of situation could become more commonplace. Much more recently, in the last few months we’ve seen multiple disagreements (1, 2) between Netflix and ISPs like Comcast and Verizon about who should pay for what when it comes to giving users better levels of service on their Netflix streams (more on this in a later article).

Today, there are two primary questions: (1) should we still have network neutrality at all? and (2) if so, should we regulate it? There’s also the more nuanced issue of “exactly what do we mean by ‘net neutrality’?”.

My Take

Having researched the issue and thought about arguments from each side, my position is that the federal government should regulate ISPs to follow the principle of network neutrality. I define network neutrality as the combination of the following rules:

* ISPs can only charge a fee for those who connect directly to its network, not the sources or destinations of its traffic.
* ISPs can allocate resources differently for different kinds of applications (e.g. video streaming versus web browsing), but not according to the source or destination of that traffic (with the exception of allocating bandwidth to customers according to their pricing plan).
* ISPs can charge differently for different levels of service, but the level of service must be the same across all the rest of the Internet, not on a per-site basis. The same offerings must be available to all customers.

These rules are largely inspired by a net neutrality definition from Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the World Wide Web): “If I pay to connect to the Net with a certain quality of service, and you pay to connect with that or greater quality of service, then we can communicate at that level.” These rules also make exceptions for things like illegal activity, security attacks, etc. to the extent that reasonable efforts to prevent these issues must violate the rules.

My primary rationale is that if ISPs start charging users or content providers different amounts to access different parts of the Internet, then I believe (as many do) that the Internet will become much more closed off and we won’t see nearly the free-flowing exchange of ideas and content that we do now. This becomes especially hard on content providers who end up having to pay every last ISP just to reach all of their subscribers.

Furthermore, customers are already paying ISPs for the cost of maintaining their network and carrying traffic. It shouldn’t matter what type of traffic that is. Figuring out how to deliver the user’s requested content is the ISP’s problem, not the user’s.

Opposing arguments

I’d like to take some time to address some of the trickier arguments that took me a while to fully answer.

Why should content providers have free access to an ISP’s “pipes”?

The Edward Whitacre argument is one that’s tricky to address at first, but much less so once you understand the overall payment structure of the Internet. The short answer is that content providers don’t use ISPs’ “pipes” for free, although the payment may be indirect. This is because of two forms of connection agreements between networks, known as “peering” and “transit”. Ars Technica has a good writeup on this, but I’ll give a quick overview.

Transit is similar to the relationship between a customer and an ISP: when network A pays network B for transit, A expects B to carry any and all of A’s traffic to the rest of the Internet. The cost is often in terms of dollars per amount of data transferred.

Peering, on the other hand, is a more mutual agreement, and traditionally (though not always) does not involve payment from either side. When two networks agree to peer with one another, they agree to exchange traffic directly between their customers, but not between their upstream connections. For example, if Verizon and Comcast peer with each other, a Verizon customer’s computer can communicate with a Comcast customer’s computer, but that same Verizon customer’s computer could not use Comcast’s transit provider to access the rest of the Internet.

Given that every network must connect to its neighbors through either peering or transit, any network that is carrying traffic from one place to another must have already made some agreement to carry that traffic. For example, if traffic from a YouTube video is traveling through AT&T’s network on the way to a Comcast customer, there must have been some agreements (paid or not) between the networks between YouTube and AT&T to allow the traffic to flow. So even if YouTube’s transit provider did not pay AT&T directly, there’s still a chain of payments between said transit provider and AT&T (with the possible exception of peering connections)

Networks are indeed expensive to maintain and upgrade, but the users and content providers creating the traffic flowing across those networks are certainly paying their fair share.

People who download lots of videos slow down network access for everyone else

I’m okay with routing traffic so that certain kinds of traffic don’t take up all the bandwidth from other users. This does not violate my principle of net neutrality. Ideally, ISPs would divide up their total available bandwidth at various points in the network and divide it up evenly among the customers who are currently sending and receiving packets. So regardless of what type of traffic the user is causing, they still get the same bandwidth as everyone else. That said, this may not be feasible given the complexity of most networks and the difficulty in configuring network management policies, but it’s an ideal to shoot for.

The real solution is to have more competition among ISPs—then the free market would encourage net neutrality as users buy access from ISPs that follow the principle.

Would “real” competition help? Well, maybe. I don’t know of any place in the US that has more than a small handful of available providers (often just one or two), so we don’t have actual experience to extrapolate from. A big problem, though, is that it’s hard to encourage competition in the Internet access space. Laying cables across cities and rural areas to connect residences and businesses to the Internet is a large expense, and not many companies are willing to take that kind of risk.

What are some of the options for encouraging competition? We could force all ISPs to open access to their cable lines to other ISPs, lowering the barrier to entry. However, the owning ISPs rightfully expect to make profits off of the lines they dug, so we shouldn’t force them to open their cable access. We could allow them to charge licensing fees for the access right, but without forcing them to do so, there’s no guarantee that would happen. We could require all future network lines to offer licensed access, but that doesn’t do anything for all the existing lines connecting most of the US already.

We could also have the government take over building the physical networks instead, but then we have the usual problem with government-run projects that there’s less incentive to upgrade and innovate.

I don’t see a great way forward here, but I’d love to know if there are other good ideas out there.

Some users/content providers might want to pay extra for a guaranteed quality of service (QoS) level

This type of argument can be made for those who use the Internet for mission-critical, drop-sensitive tasks. For example, one could imagine a military network that needs to route a video feed from soldiers on the ground to commanders on the other side of the globe. The military might be willing to pay more for access to a high-speed line with very little contention.

This is still doable, but I think it should happen only at the direct-connection level. If you want a fast connection, then you pay your ISP for it, who pays someone else for a fast connection, who pays someone else, etc. Forcing the end-customer to pay every middle man along the way seems impractical.

It’s possible that this is less efficient than having specifically outlined QoS levels that a user can pay for, but I’m not convinced that this is impossible to implement within a net neutrality framework.  Even if it is, I think it’s a good trade-off to make to maintain the openness of the Internet.

Network neutrality is a good principle, but regulating it would cause more issues than it solves

This is perhaps my main concern. I haven’t had a chance to research this yet, so expect it to be the topic of a future article.


Net neutrality is a great principle to help keep the Internet an open environment that allows for rapid exchange of information, services, or just the latest funny cat pictures. It can take several forms, though, and the arguments against it (or against regulating it) should not be trivially dismissed. My own position is that we should regulate it to prevent abuses from ISPs, but allow for reasonable traffic prioritization. I encourage you to learn more, keep an eye on the news, and if you agree that this is a principle we need to enforce, contact your legislators when the issue comes up again.

I’m sure there are plenty more issues about net neutrality than I’ve covered here, so I’m happy to continue the discussion in the comments below.

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