Net neutrality

All the various discussions of incidents wherein ISPs have done “shady things” all ignore WHY they made those moves over the simple fact that it happened. Instead the ready assumption is that ISPs did it to extort money from the content platforms, and this has led to presumptions of things like “micro transactions” and all kinds of other fear mongering merely “because they can” because ISPs in many regions hold a monopoly.

Except businesses typically try to avoid losing customers. A company having a monopoly in a region doesn’t mean they can just do what they want. Not when they still have to answer to municipalities (who answer to voters). And if a business artificially prices customers off their service, that’s not exactly a good thing.

BitTorrent was blocked by ComCast because BitTorrent is designed to saturate an Internet connection when downloading. Even prior to P2P, download managers already existed with the intent of taking advantage of HTTP protocol flexibility to download files from multiple sources (aka “mirrors”) with the intent of saturating your Internet connection. P2P sharing arguably started with Napster, which gave rise to other P2P network protocols like Gnutella and, eventually, BitTorrent.

Unless throttled in the client software, P2P is designed to saturate an Internet connection. And will saturate an Internet connection, which can affect network availability in a home or apartment, college campus (something I had fun dealing with when I was in college), or a local region.

Video streaming is also designed to saturate a connection. Video streaming protocols will change quality settings based on bandwidth availability between the sender and receiver. We’ve all seen this with YouTube and streamers have likely experienced such as well trying to stream via YouTube or Twitch. All of that has the potential to affect availability for everyone.

So much of the hyperbole over what could happen if the “Open Internet Order” is repealed seems to avoid the question of why ISPs did those “shady” things and merely looks to the fact that it happened. And that does nothing to further any understanding. And it’s fueling a lot of baseless speculation as well.

And the idea of “micro transactions” and extortion comes from a very, very broad misunderstanding of the whole “fast lane” concept. Recall where I said that video streaming is designed to saturate a connection up to the maximum throughput needed to stream the video at the requested quality settings. And the sender will throttle the video stream if congestion is encountered. In other words, video is very bandwidth intense. And given that Netflix and YouTube both support 4K streaming (likely with few consumers right now), this isn’t a problem going away any time soon.

Enter the “fast lanes”. While it’s been portrayed as ISPs trying to extort money from Netflix, there’s actually a much more benign motive here: getting Netflix to help upgrade the infrastructure needed to support their video streaming. Since it was the start of their streaming service, and the eventual consumption of it by millions of people, that led to massive degradation in Internet service for millions of other customers who weren’t streaming Netflix or much else.

To alleviate traffic congestion, many metropolitan areas have HOV lanes, or “high occupancy vehicle” lanes to encourage carpooling. The degree to which this is successful being highly debatable. The “fast lane” concept for the Internet was similar. But when the idea was first mentioned, many took it to mean that ISPs were going to artificially throttle websites who don’t pay up. When what it actually means is providing a separate bandwidth route for bandwidth-intense applications. Specifically video streaming.

And since these were sources of complaints among the general populace — whose only knowledge of computer networking, let alone the structure of the Internet, isn’t much — this led the FCC to talk about trying to regulate the Internet infrastructure. Since regulating the Internet is something that governments across the world have been trying to do for at last the last 15 years. And since they haven’t had much luck regulating what happens on the Internet, regulating the infrastructure is the next best thing.

Misconceptions and misunderstandings, and the speculation and doomsday predictions that have come from all of that, lead to bad policy. And it’s fueling much of the current discussion on net neutrality.

Note: The above is a comment I attempted to put on a video for Paul’s Hardware, but the comment appears to have been filtered or deleted.

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