"Network neutrality is the idea that all web content, regardless of its form or who provides it, should be treated equally by internet providers."
Network Neutrality, like so many things, is a high-minded concept that aspires to a wonderful ideal, but an impractical reality.
But it's biggest challenge is that its advocates often make incoherent contradictory arguments like: "If they're saying I can watch all the TV I want through their internet network, but I can't go browsing Facebook on this, as much as I want, is that legal through net neutrality?"
If you are an advocate for an open, transparent and accessible Internet, Facebook is the last platform you use as an example. It is entirely conceivable that Mark Zuckerberg goes to sleep each night masturbating to his ideal version of the Internet where every single piece of content is provided through a .facebook.com (or internet.org) address. Facebook's business model is to drive as much Internet traffic as possible through it's closed ecosystem. And this is just one example of how consumers choosing to lock-in with commercial organizations online flies in the face of the stated goals of an open, neutral and equal Internet.
It is also striking that most of the outrage (covered by the press I will grant) over the so-called violations of Network Neutrality start from a cost or billing perspective. Take this new Telus charge for exceeding arbitrary bandwidth caps. Nothing about Network Neutrality states that Internet Service Providers cannot charge for the service they provide. And quite frankly, in a capitalist economy, what the market will bear applies as much to Internet access as it does to luxury watches or $900 smart phones. "But the Telus Optik TV works through the same fibre optic network as the internet!" Oy vey. If Telus wants to provide Telus content over Telus owned infrastructure to Telus customers at a price of its own choosing, it has that right. Network Neutrality is a concept, not a law. By the logic presented, if Telus provided Optik TV over a private IP network, or through traditional cable TV infrastructure, then "Network Neutrality" wouldn't apply because it isn't on "The Internet." Which is bullshit logic. A company should not have to build parallel infrastructure to provide an IP network based service because it violates strongly held ideals of misguided Internet denizens. If Telus owns IP infrastructure, it has a right to sell service over it how it sees fit, regardless if that infrastructure is connected to the Internet or not. Telus' customers do not own their Internet circuits. Telus owns them. (I can already hear the But! But! screams, and I know what you're going to say, I'll get to that in a bit.)
And quite frankly, the "internet traffic should be treated equally" concept is a technical none-starter. As the Internet has evolved, the services provided over it have challenged the concept of "equal." The problem with any network is that it is a complete technical impossibility to provide all of the bandwidth needed to everyone all of the time. Every Internet circuit is over-subscribed.
Consider the following simple three node network:
The simple solution is to give N1 a 2 Mbps circuit so that it can equally provide content to N2 and N3. Of course, if N4 is added to the network, N1 will be oversubscribed again. But at least the calculation here is simple. The network bandwidth N1 needs is expressed in the formula N1=N2+N3+....N99. There is only one node that needs to have enough capacity to interact with every other node.
But what if everyone is a server? Like participants on a BitTorrent network, sharing data with each other.
Here we have a problem. Because any one node can be providing data to any other node, it becomes impossible to avoid congestion. The formula for this is N=N+N(+N+...N). Solve for N. The math doesn't lie. It's impossible.
BitTorrent use is a great example. Because if you use BitTorrent, and you're a "Network Neutrality" proponent, you are likely a hypocrite. Why? Well many BitTorrent users deny or limit the amount of bandwidth they are willing to share with others. This is to avoid having their circuits congested by other Torrenters downloading content from them. That is not being neutral, you are degrading quality of service for others to limit the impact on you. Granted it is you, not the ISP making that decision, but from the perspective of the other Torrenters, what difference does that make?
Enter streaming services, particularly live-streaming services like IP Phones, Video Chats, and live broadcasts. These services cannot withstand any congestion at all. Network bandwidth has to be "guaranteed" in order for these services to work. Neutrality in this circumstance essentially means that more congestion tolerant services get downgraded network access because they can handle it better. Is that a neutral choice though? Those tolerant services will experience slower access. They still work, just not as fast.
This is where the reality of networking limitations run into the idealism of network neutrality. Limitations means we have to make choices. And depending on who is affected by those choices, not everyone will see it through the same neutral lens.
But let's look at it through a commercial lens. If the option was there to pay a little bit more to guarantee NetFlix, would you? If no, but someone else is willing to, can they? If not, why not? Why do you get to choose whether someone else can purchase better service? In a commercial marketplace, if someone is willing to provide a legal service, I'm allowed to choose if I want to pay for it. We have already accepted this model for television services. That's how Rogers Cable got started in Canada. Everyone had equal free access to broadcast VHF/UHF signals, but paying for cable provided more reliable service and more channels. Why can't that ideal extend to IP enabled services over the Internet?
Because the Internet is a public good. Right? It is an essential service required to live in a modern society.
That "essential service" isn't as essential as people say it is, or at least the way they mean it. Essential doesn't mean being able to download gigs and gigs of copyright content for free. Essential doesn't mean being able to play massive online video games without lag or jitter. Essential doesn't mean interruption free NetFlix binge watching.
Essential, at most, means access to e-mail and to Google and Wikipedia (yes I am being a little bit sarcastic). Those services do not require anything more than a 4 or 5 Mb internet circuit. People are not being entirely honest when they shout about "public good" and "neutral networks." What they really want is cheap fast access that allows them to get as much content online for as little money as possible. Preferably free, without ads or commercials. We have greedy consumers yelling about greedy Internet companies. Excuse me if I can't take that argument very seriously.
There are compelling arguments to be made for more transparency, and better competition (I've had some thoughts on that.) But as long as Internet access is a commercial enterprise, the rule "What the market will bear" will always apply. As consumers it's perfectly fine to bitch about costs, but if you're going to turn it into a moral argument, you better make sure your own shit don't stink.
And "Network Neutrality" is a dead idea. Choices will always have to made, and others will not like those choices. It's a reality. Deal with it.