Technology

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What are the technological issues in the Net Neutrality debate?
The Short Answer

The Internet is a large interconnected network of networks. It is made up of every single computer with a connection, from the servers owned by YouTube to your computer.

No single person or company owns the internet. It is de-centralized. This is different from other networks, which are designed to be centrally managed. The Internet, in principle, treats all information the same way. The computers, rather than the network between them, determine what to do with the information. This is known as the principle of a dumb network.

Some ISPs are considering changing this design in order to increase revenues. This would involve more control of the information by the ISPs.

The Long Answer
To understand the issue of Net Neutrality, we first need to have a basic understanding of how the Internet works.

The Internet is thousands of networks that are interconnected and which agree to carry each other's traffic. Traffic generally crosses several networks to get to its destination. Information is broken up into packets. This is the same as writing a message to someone on several postcards. Each postcard contains part of the message and the final destination address. Routers are the networking equipment used in the Internet. Each router looks at the address of the packet to decide how to forward it to its final destination. The router does not look at the content of the packet. It doesn't know whether the packet is part of a telephone call, web page, email, etc. It is up to the computer receiving the packet to interpret the message it has received and display it.

A fundamental principle of the Internet is that the network doesn't know or care what is being carried in the packets. It only cares about delivering the packets to the right computer. Because the intelligence is in the end device (the consumers' PC) rather than in the network (owned by many different ISPs) anyone can create a new service without needing approval from their ISP. This often referred to as the "dumb network" principle. This design principle has allowed innovation, since services can be developed by anyone who can write software. In contrast the only person that can deploy a new service for telephones is the phone company because the intelligence is in the network (owned by the telco) rather than in the phones (owned by consumers).

Broadband providers are moving away from the dumb network principle on three fronts:

(a) ISPs want to be able to prioritize your traffic. They want to push tiered services rather than general access because they can charge more for it. This is like determining the speed of delivery of the postcard based on how much the sender has paid. This is a concept known as Quality of Service (QoS). With a specific amount of capacity on the network, postcards that are not prioritized will necessarily be delivered slower.

(b) Secondly, ISPs want to you to buy their services as opposed to you using a third party service. They want to provide you with voice, video and Internet access. This means that the ISP will prioritize their services, so that other services like Vonage, iTunes or BitTorrent will be degraded. The ability to degrade access to third parties makes it difficult for them to compete with the ISP, thus limiting choice for consumers.

(c) ISPs want to prioritize the traffic coming from content providers. This could take the form of ISPs making agreements with large content providers like CanWest for faster loading times. This would necessarily slow down content coming from sites that did not pay the ISPs. As a result, your blog would load slower than canada.com.

All of these scenarios involve the network operator making decisions based on the content or the origin of packets. This would undermine the dumb network principle and make innovation less likely, as well as reduce the diversity of voices.

Note: the dumb network is a guiding principle and is not always respected. ISPs do centrally manage the networks (for example, to reduce spam), however any central management has not been done to create revenue.