Essentially, net neutrality is the idea that no group should be able to discriminate against applications or content found on the Internet. That means no blocking access to web content, and no speeding up or slowing down of specific online services. It means the Internet should be a level playing field for ideas and innovation.
An interesting book by Barbara van Schewick explains how the Internet was originally constructed in “Internet Architecture and Innovation”. She explains that many technologies have an architecture to them that makes them easy or difficult to add other uses to. The Internet was constructed in such an open way in the beginning as the men who designed it had no idea what it would be used for in the future, if at all. They only knew what they wanted to use it for. In fact they thought the idea of people searching for something on the Internet was laughable. But, because they didn’t make any assumptions about what it may be used for, they designed it in a general way that could be easily added to.
This was very important for innovation, because the beauty of the Internet was that as long as you followed the few rules that it had when it was constructed, you could design programs that would work with it. This was important because if it had been constructed differently and you had to convince the architects of the original Internet to change something in their original platform every time to you wanted to design something for it, you would have to convince them that it was worth the effort. And in the history of the Internet, we hear over and over that when an idea was first conceived, people didn’t usually think it would ever work. In 1995 a fellow called Pierre Omidyar thought it would be a neat idea to sell items by auction online. He told his friends about it and they thought he was crazy, but he went ahead and spent a long weekend in his San Jose living room writing the code for this and put it on the web. He just was able to put it out there without having to convince anyone that it was worth it, just to see what would happen. And eBay was born.
Deep Packet Inspection
In the early days of the internet, you could use it without anyone knowing what you were doing on it. Your internet provider (or IP) didn’t know whether you were sending emails, uploading websites or downloading music. However, now your IPs employ something called “deep packet inspection”. When data has to be transmitted, it is broken down into similar structures of data, which are reassembled to the original data chunk once they reach their destination. This is how anything you do over the internet is sent. Deep Packet Inspection came about when viruses started to appear and caused more and more problems for internet users. A packet is made up of different information such as the source IP address, the destination IP address, the sequence number of the packets, the type of service, flags and other information. By reading these packets, IPs are able to filter out the viruses before they reached their own network and your computer. However now they are using this inspection for totally different purposes and that is what Net Neutrality is all about.
The argument about Net Neutrality is this: Internet providers think they should control what goes over their networks to keep its operation fair to all. However others feel they are stifling innovation by trying to control information that detracts from their own business interests. The eBay story is important to the idea of innovation over the internet. Because the internet was so open, this fellow was able to just write up some code, put it on line and see if anyone would find it as good an idea that he did. He didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission to put the site up, didn’t need any start up funds from anyone, he was just a smart guy who saw the potential of something and went ahead and did it. Google has a video program called Google video. It hoped to be something like YouTube. Likely though, you’ve never heard of it. Because YouTube was a better product and easier to use, people just voted with their clicks. This is what people are afraid of losing if the internet loses what Barbara van Schewick calls being Internet Agnostic. The internet providers claim they need to control what is happening on their networks so certain programs and people don’t hog all the bandwidth, but there are already tools to solve those problems without distorting the level playing field among their competition and classes of applications.
Some examples of how this inspection has not been agnostic:
- In 2005, Telus blocked access to hundreds of websites during a dispute with its labour union (sites and blogs about the dispute),
- Shaw attempted to levy surcharges for Internet telephony services
- Rogers quietly limited bandwidth for legitimate peer-to-peer software application (because it competed with their own VoIP offerings)
- and Videotron mused publicly about establishing a new Internet transmission tariff that would require content creators to pay millions for the privilege of transmitting their content.
In Europe, most mobile providers won't allow their customers to use Skype over the network because it competes with their own products.
Throughout the history of the internet, the low cost innovators have been the ones that created the most important applications that we use today, eBay, Flicker, Blogger, Facebook, Twitter. If we had lived in a world where you had to have investment, none or few of these innovations would exist today.
Now, you may ask, why shouldn’t the network providers be able to regulate their own networks? After all, they set them up? Well that is true, but they also get a lot of public money to help them. And like a car company can build their cars whatever way they like, they still have to adhere to regulations that make things fair and safe for the users. And the internet is even more important because it is one of the central infrastructures of our time. We communicate, study, work and generally stay in touch over it. And we can’t allow them to shape the future of the internet for their own commercial interests and not the interest of the public that uses it and now relies on it.
In the end, we don’t want network providers to be able to stifle the innovation that the internet is famous for. And we would like to continue to have the freedom to decide for ourselves what the better applications are. Let’s hope that Net Neutrality can continue.