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Against Fee-Based and other Pernicious Net Prejudice: An Explanation and Examination of the Net Neutrality Debate

Against Fee-Based and other Pernicious Net Prejudice: An Explanation and Examination of the Net Neutrality Debate

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Published by Alok Bhardwaj
I had some ideas and a perspective that no one else involved in the Net Neutrality Debate were discussing or mentioning...so I wrote this essay. It explains the entire debate from a tech. layman's point-of-view so anyone can read it; but the explanation of the concepts is fundamental to my argument so that even experts should find it stimulating. For anyone interested in understanding the Net Neutrality debate or desiring a new perspective on the debate, this essay should be very helpful and thorough!
I had some ideas and a perspective that no one else involved in the Net Neutrality Debate were discussing or mentioning...so I wrote this essay. It explains the entire debate from a tech. layman's point-of-view so anyone can read it; but the explanation of the concepts is fundamental to my argument so that even experts should find it stimulating. For anyone interested in understanding the Net Neutrality debate or desiring a new perspective on the debate, this essay should be very helpful and thorough!

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Published by: Alok Bhardwaj on Dec 26, 2007
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Against Fee-Based and other Pernicious Net Prejudice: An Explanation and Examinationof the Net Neutrality DebateBy Alok Bhardwaj November 27, 2007
 I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass.
 For every packet sent by me as good as one sent by you
. A line the just and democraticWalt Whitman would pen were he alive today in response to the need for legislation to protect net neutrality. The internet, after ten years of being a mass media, is the mostimportant mass media in the world. It’s the most democratic, open forum for free speechand expression that exists. Like freedom and democracy, it must be protected from thosewho would use their power to debase those ideals in order to unfairly secure more power and profit. Today, we face not just a potential but an actual threat in the guise of anti-netneutrality or what should more accurately and succinctly be called net prejudice. Net neutrality is the principle that every website (of the same class—more on “class”later) should be treated equally and not given any preferential treatment in respect toother websites. In other words, if you click on Google and on Yahoo, your internetservice provider (ISP) will use the fastest possible routes to deliver each website to you.It doesn’t have special routes or other preferences for one site versus another. Net Neutrality doesn’t prevent variations in overall service—in other words, it may be thatyou pay twice as much as your neighbor in order to have more bandwidth which couldlead to Yahoo loading up faster on your computer than it does on hers even if you bothclicked on Yahoo at the same time. Service providers can and should provide varioustiers of overall service depending on your needs, but once you subscribe to a given tier of service, there shouldn’t be additional fees levied on you or on the sites you access for what I call prejudicial service.Fee-based net prejudice, what telecommunications and internet service companies arearguing they should be allowed to continue informally and begin more formally to practice, would allow your internet service provider to charge websites an extra fee whichwould enable a website which pays to reach you faster than other websites. To take our above example, let’s suppose Yahoo agrees to pay your service provider some fee andGoogle doesn’t—then Google, who doesn’t pay this fee, would come to you later thanYahoo, who does pay, even though you clicked on them at the exact same time.If your first instinct is that this sounds more like a bribe (from Yahoo) then an actualservice that’s been provided—that’s exactly right. While there are scenarios in whichfee-based net prejudice could lead to genuine investment and services, when the designand the current state of the internet is examined, there is overwhelming evidence and
 
reason to believe that fee-based net prejudice will have only pernicious outcomes withoutany benefits and massive harms for consumers and the world.The essential difference is that there are various ways an internet service provider could provide “better service”. It could actually deliver websites to you faster or it couldartificially slow down certain websites that you’ve also requested to give the illusion thatother websites are getting to you faster. The only reasonable scenarios we’ll see are of the latter nature.Two terms will be used basically interchangeably in this essay—net prejudice and qualityof service. Both terms refer to the same thing—preferential treatment of certain sites.Quality of service is a technical term for preferential treatment of different internet data. Net prejudice is a term I’ve coined to describe the practice of QoS in contrast to netneutrality. It should be noted that net prejudice is itself not necessarily a bad thing and infact is a feature of the newest internet protocols (IPv6). What is pernicious (or so we willfind) is the practice of service providers charging for net prejudice, fee-based net prejudice, as well as any non class-based net prejudice (i.e. for your service provider to be allowed to block or slow down sites your provider “doesn’t like”).INTERNET TECHNOLOGYThe internet works via a fundamentally different technology from phone lines and maildelivery. The internet uses what’s called a packet system. When you make a phone call,there’s a single line that’s dedicated to you and the person you’re calling. When you loadup the Google website, there is no dedicated line between you and Google. Instead,Google’s webpage arrives at your computer as many “packets”—each packet containingsome information which your internet browser assembles into a webpage. Each packetmay have taken a separate route from Google to arrive to you—depending on which routewas the most open or the fastest.An analogous situation with the post office would be if when you gave them one of your letters, they cut it up into a hundred small pieces and sent each piece to your destinationvia some different route and then when all the pieces arrived there, they glued your letter  back together and delivered it to your recipient. What works for the internet is for obvious reasons impractical and inefficient (not to mention really strange) for the postoffice! Similarly, the post office offers services that are impractical and inefficient for theinternet (as we will see) such as a wide variety of delivery speeds.When the post office delivers your letter overnight, it’s delivering a genuine service.Your letter is transported by a plane or planes rather than via trucks. The post office hasto pay more and invest more capital to offer that service.Is it possible for internet providers to offer varying delivery speeds the way the postoffice does? There are basically three possibilities. Your internet provider could invest innew long haul pipes data carrying cables, new last mile cables or offer a pseudo-service
 
of letting websites cut in line for money.In the latter case of offering a pseudo-service, your internet provider would practice net prejudice by letting Yahoo, say, load up before other websites you want to see— essentially cutting in line. This is a pseudo-service since your internet provider let Yahoogo first rather than actually improve your internet service in a fundamental way or deliver Yahoo in a fundamentally different way than it delivered the other websites (all of themcame to you via the same last mile cables and the same set of long haul cables). Your internet provider does need a lot of equipment in order to be able to discriminate (or  practice net prejudice) but it is not really a genuine service but rather a feature of thenetwork. This pseudo-service pretends to make Yahoo get to you faster but actually it just lets Yahoo cut in line in front of other websites or services you also want to use.Letting Yahoo cut in line, the pseudo-service scenario, in a sense makes you pay for theservice through your time—you have to wait longer for other websites you want to see.Though I’ve characterized net prejudice as a pseudo-service, that’s probably only a fair characterization of fee-based net prejudice. Non-fee-based net prejudice is better thoughtof as a feature of the network. The newest internet protocols, IPv6, for example have net prejudice as a feature. It’s actually not clear at all if this feature will improve serviceacross the network (you probably won’t tell the difference or know when most networksswitch to IPv6), but theoretically there are good cases for building net prejudice into anetwork. Emergency calls in the phone network is a good example—suppose all the phone lines are busy and someone’s calling 911, one would think that some other callshould be shut down so that the 911 call can get through, and that is in fact how the phone network basically works. Without net prejudice, equivalent scenarios where thereare say emergency message packets waiting in line behind my YouTube packets, there’sno way to be able to make my YouTube packets wait to get the emergency message packets through.Any fee-based net prejudice without new or dedicated cables for the paying websites isgoing to result in a pseudo service. Post office prices reflect a genuine difference inservice and that it’s cheaper to transport via truck than by plane. For the internet,however, it’s a zero-sum game when your provider is using the same cables. It’s a zero-sum game in that if someone’s website gets to you faster it’s because someone else’swebsite gets to you slower (both of which you’ve chosen to load up)—so net prejudice issimply a feature of the network and not a genuine additional service your provider isinvesting significantly to offer.WHY CAN’T ISPs LAY OUT NEW CABLES FOR WEBSITES THAT WILL PAY FOR IT?They can. Let’s analyze what they could do and why they’d do it. There are two types of  broad categories of cables that carry internet data—long haul and last mile cables. Thereis still a glut of long haul cables (much so-called dark fiber is available and called dark  because it is unlit or unused at the moment)—cables which go from city to city or across

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