The Internet Crisis?

Last week the FCC ruled that Comcast acted against their open-Internet principles by improperly slowing peer-to-peer BitTorrent traffic. Up to that decision, and shortly after that decision became official, there have been several good articles written on the topic. Some are strongly for it, and some strongly against. Some simply ask if it was necessary and why. If you aren’t familiar with what exactly has happened, it all started with Comcast throttling a certain type of traffic on their networks. That means if you were using BitTorrent for anything on Comcast’s network, they shut down your transfer. It wasn’t based on amount of data transferred, it wasn’t based on peak usage times, it was based on the protocol, which according to the complaint goes against the FCC’s Internet Policy Statement.

Degrading these protocols undermines innovation and violates the FCC’s Internet Policy Statement, whose four principles guarantee consumers access to the content, applications, and services of their choice, as well as access to competition among network, applications, and content providers.

In this debate, I think I could easily fall on the side of the complaint, or ultimately the FCC’s ruling in favor of the complain (Comcast was in the wrong). As someone who personally and professionally uses the Internet a lot, this issue hits close to home. Strictly speaking about Internet protocols, there really shouldn’t be any reason for this. Traffic from one application or protocol shouldn’t be treated differently than traffic from another application or protocol. Bits are bits no matter where they come from. Just because I’m watching YouTube videos online and you’re checking your gmail, there really should be no difference in how our connections are treated. So at its core level, I am for Network Neutrality. The lines, wires, pipes, whatever you want to call them shouldn’t play favorites to what travels through them.

There are a few areas where the issue does become a little more gray for me. When Network Neutrality came around the last time (government bills, debates etc.), there were no official regulations put into place but an understanding that if networks did start to prioritize traffic, the FCC would retroactively punish them. The network operators said, “you don’t need to make it illegal, we’ll be good… we promise.” At that time, even being on the side of network neutrality, I kind of agreed that a law might not be necessary. Particularly given that the folks making the laws most likely didn’t understand the issue, and would probably botch anything that did get put together. Just look at past technology regulations and laws for examples of this. Even if they were able to cobble together a good law, I’m still not for frivolous legislation, but wonder if that is the only way out now. Comcast is not the only network doing this type of thing. Many ISP’s are doing similar things with the traffic flowing over their networks. Maybe it’s just in a different way than Comcast, or maybe they haven’t gotten caught yet. Given statements made by many ISP’s, they definitely want to be able to do it in some form or another. I don’t like to get political on here, but I don’t really see that this is really a political issue, or at least it shouldn’t be one. It really shouldn’t matter what political party you follow, it’s more about getting the most out of the Internet, and not being beholden to your service provider for a certain type of content. This image is an obvious exaggeration, but shows what I mean. This might not matter if there were true competition for internet services, but in many instances there are maybe one or two high speed options in an area (usually phone or cable). If they both happen to do what they please with your traffic, you’re out of luck.

The other part of this that is a little gray to me is the why. I have my suspicions as to why the network owners want to do this, but really want to know if it is true or not. The claim is that Comcast, or any network provider, needs to shape the traffic on their networks to avoid becoming oversaturated and not being able to handle the use (that they’ve oversold). They claim over and over again that a small percentage of users take up the bulk of the bandwidth on their networks so that other users can’t. I’m joking a little bit here, but was crazy Sen. Ted Stevens right when he claimed that the Internet was just a series of tubes and when the tubes fill up there isn’t room for more data to flow through them. The part that doesn’t make sense to me (and please correct me if I’m wrong) is that data is not a limited resource. We’re not talking about oil here, where there is only so much to go around. The argument that the network operators throw out in this debate is people using more should pay more. There are even some ISP’s experimenting with limiting users bandwidth (a throwback to the AOL dial-up days). My suspicion here is that the network operators are just plain greedy, wanting to squeeze more money out of customers. All of these network operators have peering agreements, so it isn’t costing them more (or really anything at that matter) to make these bits flow over their lines. The only part of this that makes any sense is that possibly the lines are oversold and at capacity now, and they haven’t invested back into the infrastructure. I don’t mean the big lines here connecting one city to another or one big network to another big network. I mean the last mile, the stuff that runs from those big lines into your house. The bits themselves flowing over those wire are basically unlimited. Isn’t the price I pay for my connection right now paying for that infrastructure? And what about all the tax perks given to the telecoms in the 90’s for the promise that they’d upgrade their networks? It’s true that I could be very confused on how all of this works, but to me is just seems like the communication/telecom big-wigs just want to up the bottom line and are using this network neutrality debate as an excuse.

These are just my rambling thoughts on the subject. I could be way off in several areas. Please let me know if I am, and why things are the way they are. I want to understand this. Is there a valid reason for it, or is it just the need for control and greed at work? I just think that for the Internet to thrive, it needs to be a neutral environment. Just look at the past 10 years and where we’ve come. Would we have come as far if the owners of the lines got to pick and chose what went over them and how? This is an exciting time. It could even be called an information revolution looking at how people publish and ingest information online. We risk bringing it all to a standstill if the network operators get to put up their own traffic cops and only let through the bits that they deem worththy, and lock up the ones they don’t.

Some good articles about the recent debate:

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