By Art Reisman
Editor’s note: Art Reisman is the CTO of APconnections. APconnections designs and manufactures the popular NetEqualizer bandwidth shaper. APconnections removed all Deep Packet Inspection technology from their NetEqualizer product over 2 years ago.
As the debate over net neutrality continues, we often forget what an ISP actually is and why they exist.
ISPs in this country are for-profit private companies made up of stockholders and investors who took on risk (without government backing) to build networks with the hopes of making a profit. To make a profit they must balance users expectations for performance against costs of implementing a network.
The reason bandwidth control is used in the first place is the standard switching problem capacity problem. Nobody can afford the investment of infrastructure to build a network to meet peak demands at all times. Would you build a house with 10 bedrooms if you were only expecting one or two kids sometime in the future? ISPs build networks to handle an average load, and when peak loads come along, they must do some mitigation. You can argue they should have built their networks; with more foresight until you are green, but the fact is demand for bandwidth will always outstrip supply.
So, where did the net neutrality debate get its start?
Unfortunately, in many Internet providers’ first attempt to remedy the overload issue on their networks, the layer-7 techniques they used opened a Pandora’s box of controversy that may never be settled.
When the subject of net neutrality started heating up around 2007 and 2008, the complaints from consumers revolved around ISP practices of looking inside customer’s transmittal of data and blocking or redirecting traffic based on content. There were all sorts of rationalizations for this practice and I’ll be the first to admit that it was not done with intended malice. However, the methodology was abhorrent.
I likened this practice to the phone company listening into your phone calls and deciding which calls to drop to keep their lines clear. Or, if you want to take it a step farther, the postal service making a decision to toss your junk mail based on their own private criteria. Legally I see no difference between looking inside mail or looking inside Internet traffic. It all seems to cross a line. When referring to net neutrality, the bloggers of this era were originally concerned with this sort of spying and playing God with what type of data can be transmitted.
To remedy this situation, Comcast and others adopted methods that relegated Internet usage based on patterns of usage and not content. At the time, we were happy to applaud them and claim that the problem of spying on data had been averted. I pretty much turned my attention away from the debate at that time, but I recently started looking back at the debate and, wow, what a difference a couple of years make.
So, where are we headed?
I am not sure what his sources are, but Rush Limbaugh claims that net neutrality is going to become a new fairness doctrine. To summarize, the FCC or some government body would start to use its authority to ensure equal access to content from search engine companies. For example, making sure that minority points of view on subjects got top billing in search results. This is a bit a scary, although perhaps a bit alarmist, but it would not surprise me since, once in government control, anything is possible. Yes, I realize conservative talk radio show hosts like to elicit emotional reactions, but usually there is some truth to back up their claims.
Other intelligent points of view:
The CRTC (Canadian FCC) seems to have a head on their shoulders, they have stated that ISPs must disclose their practices, but are not attempting to regulate how in some form of over reaching doctrine. Although I am not in favor of government institutions, if they must exist then the CRTC stance seems like a sane and appropriate request with regard to regulating ISPs.