Back in mid-May, Internet users and corporate giants were raging against the Federal Communications Commission’s proposed rules that could upend our current version of net neutrality. Industry Buzz and others wrote about how the FCC voted in favor of advancing a proposal that could allow for an Internet “fast lane” to develop and, possibly, for service providers to charge website owners as well as website visitors for access to preferred content.
The FCC is still debating whether or not to make a number of changes to regulations that govern net neutrality, and people are likely still fuming about the possibility that their national regulative body could allow something so heinous to happen such as allowing fast lanes. However, the general public’s fumes may have been a little misplaced this whole time, says a recent Wired article.
In that article, writer Robert McMillan discusses the idea that the Internet has not been neutral for several years now, so the net that citizens are trying to defend hardly exists in the way that they see it. In reality, the net is not neutral, and the lopsided nature of how the Internet actually operates tends to help consumers more than they likely know.
McMillan is not saying that the fight is all for naught; he only suggests that the public is misinformed. While people are busy fighting for the right of Internet traffic to all travel at the same speed through the backbones of the net, traffic has been traveling at vastly different speeds right before their eyes.
McMillan references an event that took place last month. He says Craig Labovitz, the CEO of DeepField Networks Inc., testified before a Congressional committee about the proposed Comcast-Time Warner merger. During that meeting, Labovitz claimed that the Internet existed in a completely different state only 10 years ago when thousands of companies provided data, roughly equally, to consumers. Come 2009, however, more than half of Internet traffic came from approximately 150 content companies. In 2014, the number of companies that provide more than half the content is down to 30.
It is that changed shape of the Internet that has caused some companies to seek “peering” agreements with ISPs. As McMillan states, peering is “Where one internet operation connects directly to another, so that they can trade traffic. This could be a connection between an ISP such as Comcast and an internet backbone provider such as Level 3. But it could also be a direct connection between an ISP and a content provider such as Google.”
Google and other large companies now create peering networks that bypass the backbone of the Internet. These large companies set up routers inside of well-known service providers such as Comcast to get their data — such as YouTube videos — to consumers more quickly. Anyone watching his or her favorite online videos is likely benefitting from these preferential networks.
McMillan argues that the lack of neutrality present in the Internet is not a problem and that consumers should not argue against it. Instead, they should seek to limit the control that service providers have over their own customers.
Service providers did not used to charge for peering connections, McMillan points out, because their customers received faster content that did not clog up their networks. Recently, though, providers have begun to charge for such connections: Vox discusses Comcast’s decision to charge Netflix for a faster connection to individual users.
The point the McMillan tries to make is that arguing for net neutrality goes against the reality of how the Internet actually works, but arguing against the power of service providers can help keep the Internet somewhat level while getting customers the content they want at prices that are reasonable. He says that consumers would be better off fighting for regulation that improved competition between service providers.
As an example, he says, “If Comcast’s last-mile of cable connection was available to all competitors under the same terms that gave dial-up service providers access to all copper telephone networks back in the 1990s, we would have more ISPs in more geographical areas.” A similar situation could emerge if the FCC was to classify ISPs as common carriers, and in that situation, consumers would have more choice of which service provider to use while large companies such as Google would have more leverage with ISPs when creating peering networks.
At the time being, McMillan says, consumers’ arguments are misdirected. A better understanding of how the Internet actually works and how it benefits such consumers, though, could help to sort things out and perhaps intice government entities such as the FCC to better regulate the ecosystem of the Web.
Image courtesy of Martin Lewison via Wikimedia Commons