Thursday, March 1, 2012

On Network Neutrality

One of the topics discussed in class is Network Neutrality (NN), a big buzzword in the recent history of the Internet. For those unfamiliar with it, this post will be a brief introduction to the concept along with its recent implementation in the U.S. law.

For start, it would be worthwhile to explore the definition of the idea first. As quoted from Columbia University's prof. Tim Wu's FAQ:
"Network neutrality is best defined as a network design principle. The idea is that a maximally useful public information network aspires to treat all content, sites, and platforms equally."
While this can be treated very broadly, the NN idea as applied to the Internet is largely related to the ISPs' ability to control the flow of information through their networks. Well, what does neutral mean in this case then? Generally speaking, it would be discriminating against some kind of packets flowing through the net and preferentially treating other packets. One could imagine this could possibly be used to improve the Quality of Service for some ISPs, as they theoretically could speed up access to important or influential parts of the Internet, but such a system could possibly discriminate against free spread of information as well. And the latter possibility is one of the reasons that speak for advocating NN to make the Internet a free arena for information spread (one can read about it in Tim Wu's paper). One of the founding ideas of the Internet was to provide an open web of information, and the principles of NN aspire to protect this idea.

Now, the debate over what's more important - freedom of speech or the ISPs interests - is what the debate over NN really boils down to. There are, of course, people who argue for one side or the other. It's far from a settled debate.

So, given all that debate, it turns out that - in case you've been living under a rock - that Network Neutrality has been implemented in the U.S. law not that long ago. Yet, many consider this a very lackluster implementation of the idea - as both sides have stated. On one hand, the Congress passed a bill that very much is, in fact, an implementation of the Network Neutrality ideas at its very core, so the opponents of the idea were definitely disgruntled. One of the Republican FCC commissioners, opposed to the bill, was quoted saying that the day the bill passed was one of "darkest days in recent FCC history". However, even the supporters of the movement had plenty of complaints about the bill, as it was said to be quite vague and allowing of many loopholes to the protection of the neutrality of the web. For instance, a phrasing of "managed services" that the ISPs are allowed to sell could be interpreted as a right to sell any kind of prioritized Internet services for the ISPs.

In recent times, the debate has recently remained quiet, but the case is definitely not settled. Whether or not any side is right or wrong, however, is a topic for an another, very long discussion.


  1. Glad to see someone post on Net Neutrality since I had hoped to cover it in class and won't have time...

  2. I agree that whether neutrality or interest is more important (which side wins the debates) is hard to see at this point. Most likely tradeoffs will be taken...