What is Net Neutrality?

Posted By BrokenClaw on June 18, 2008

Net Neutrality, also known as Network Neutrality or Internet Neutrality, is the idea that all data moving across the Internet should be treated equally by the companies who move it. In other words, your ISP should not be allowed to slow down your traffic based on what it is. The telecommunication companies who own the pipelines should not be allowed to charge more for traffic based on what it is. Net neutrality demands that all data is just data, regardless if it is a webpage, a multimedia file, an Internet voice call, a BitTorrent, or whatever.

The issue of net neutrality should not be confused with traffic volume pricing. Paying an ISP or web host for higher bandwidth limits or faster transfer speeds is a normal business practice. No one disputes the concept of paying more for better, faster service.

What net neutrality addresses is the possibility of ISPs looking inside the data packets to see what they are (packet sniffing), and then degrading the service based on what they see (packet shaping).

It would be as if the Post Office could look inside your envelopes and charge more for a Christmas card than it does for a birthday card. Or, using the toll road analogy, suppose two Ford Explorers pulled up to the toll booth. The toll taker would look inside each one, and then charged their toll, or set their speed limit, based on the driver’s appearance.

In practice, the issue of net neutrality usually comes up in the examples mentioned above — multimedia files via BitTorrent and Internet voice calls. ISPs have been accused of slowing down transfer speeds when the data being transferred is one of those two things. There’s no disputing that people who constantly download audio and video files use more than the average amount of bandwidth, but the question is, if they pay for unlimited bandwidth, why should that be a problem?

Another possible point of contention is conflict of interest, for example, with Internet voice calls (Voice over Internet Protocol, abbreviated and pronounced VoIP). Imagine if ISPs had the power to degrade service based on the provider. For example, suppose your ISP was Comcast, but you subscribed to Vonage or Skype VoIP service. Could Comcast degrade your Vonage or Skype service because you didn’t choose Comcast VoIP? Could Verizon degrade your connection to Google because they have a contract with MSN Search?

And what about ISPs who are also content providers? Would Comcast give preferential treatment, or not meter your bandwidth, if you were watching Comcast Sports over your Comcast connection? Would Verizon FiOS give preferential treatment to Verizon video services?

The issue of net neutrality is far more complicated that what is described here. The important point to know is that net neutrality has nothing to do with the amount of data — it has everything to do with the type of data.

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