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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I've been online since 1971 and I like to smoothe the way for everyone else. Among other things I co-founded Sympatico, the world's first easy-to-use Internet service (and Canada's largest).

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Net Neutrality

Most of the people advocating “Net Neutrality” seem to view high-speed Internet access as some kind of fundamental human right. I think such an ideological view is blinding them to the fact that Net Neutrality is not that simple an issue. I note also that most of them are pretty clueless about how the Internet actually operates, but like most politicians they feel perfectly capable of setting policy about something they know nothing about. There are different kinds of Net Neutrality, and my own position is that one kind is good while another is bad. I don’t propose to do a complete analysis here, but only to show a particular distinction that I think is very important.

The side of Net Neutrality I like is the one about not discriminating among destinations. If I place a VoIP call, my ISP should not be able to prevent my using Vonage (or to permit it only if I pay more) just because it has its own VoIP product. Such discrimination allows a carrier to take advantage of its near-monopoly situation in order to boost its other non-monopoly business, and should be prohibited. A non-Internet example: I subscribe to cable TV, and when the cable company, which also has media interests, bought a sports channel from another media company it decided to make it a “basic cable” offering that every cable customer would have to pay for, including people like me who never watch it. The cable company had never forced on its subscribers a longer established and much more popular sports channel that it did not own; this action was taken only when it benefitted the cable company’s media division. This is the kind of discrimination I would like to see prevented. If a carrier offers value-added services like VoIP, that’s fine with me, but it should not be permitted to discriminate between its own services and those of others.

The side of Net Neutrality that I’m not so keen on is the one relating to “traffic shaping”. Here the ISP gives lower priority to certain types of packets in order to keep the rest of the packets moving smartly. In particular, it gives lower priority to BitTorrent packets. BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer system for distributing large files, and is very good at that: GNU/Linux distributions have been spread this way, for instance. Unfortunately, the vast majority of BitTorrent traffic consists of audio and video distributed illegally, such as movies recorded by a video camera smuggled into a movie theatre. Movie files are huge, and BitTorrent traffic now constitutes a large percentage of all Internet traffic. Net Neutrality advocates say that this traffic should get equal priority. I don’t agree. If my ISP uses traffic shaping to slow down BitTorrent, that’s just fine with me. Yes, that unfortunately slows down “legitimate” torrents as well, but I’d rather pay that price than have the entire Internet slow to a crawl.

Consider this: if we applied full Net Neutrality to email, everyone relaying email would be required to give spam as good treatment as other email. Now there’s a cause worth supporting!

Those of you who have been around for a while may remember Usenet newsgroups. They were very useful, until the flood of “newbies” in the late 90s swamped almost every newsgroup with entries from people who had little or no idea what they were doing. The result was that newsgroups were abandoned; I haven’t looked at them in years and my ISP doesn’t even carry them any more (though it’s arranged for free access via a third party for those few customers who still have any interest). A situation like this is called “the tragedy of the commons”, and if the Net Neutrality advocates get everything they’re asking for, that’s what we risk happening to the entire Internet. Any “commons” needs to be policed to prevent abuse, and right now only the ISPs can do that. If we were to take away that ability, the Net Neutrality advocates might achieve a Pyrrhic victory.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back when I was in my first year of university, BitTorrent was just coming onto the scene. Pretty soon there was so much file sharing going on the dorm internet connection that the Internet literally stopped working. The university (Queen's) introduced a traffic shaping policy that essentially stopped P2P traffic. They also started enforcing the 2GB per week download limit. If you exceeded the download limit, your connection was disabled.

I don't think most people appreciate how much some people are sharing. I know people who download and upload more than 80GB per week.

Most ISPs have bandwidth limits in their contracts and could enforce them if they chose to. I'm not really not clear as to why they haven't.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007 at 12:44:00 p.m. EDT  

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