Net neutrality is the principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally regardless of content, and has been a fundamental core principle of the internet since its inception, one that is widely credited for its unprecedented success. As Wikipedia puts it,
“Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication.”
Net neutrality encourages innovation by allowing smaller companies to compete on an equal footing with large multinationals in terms of internet penetration, and allows ordinary users to access any and all information and opinions on the internet in a free and democratic manner.
In the United States, however, net neutrality is in deep trouble.
In January this year the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in favor of leading US telecoms giant Verizon, following a long running dispute with the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over whether the 2010 FCC Open Internet Order (which did not itself go far enough in the view of net neutrality activists) applies to ‘common carriers’ (such as regular telecoms companies).
In one stroke this effectively negated the concept of net neutrality in the United States. At the time, it was expected the FCC would simply reclassify internet services as “communications services”(which are classed as “common carriers”), rather than as “information services”, thereby bringing them back under its jurisdiction, so it rather surprised almost everyone when the FCC instead declared plans to save net neutrality by allowing telecoms companies to introduce internet fast lanes for favored content (the exact opposite of internet neutrality)!
Amid cries of ‘betrayal’, the FCC announced a 60 day public consultation, followed by a 60 day decision-making period. The public consultation led to an “overwhelming surge of traffic” to the FCC website, crashing it twice, and leading the FCC to extend the consultation period for a number of days. In the end, an unprecedented 1.1 million members of the public submitted their views to the FCC (apparently the “f-word” was used a lot), the vast majority of which were heavily in favor of preserving net neutrality.
The proposals have now entered the decision making period, but FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has stated that he supports paid prioritization (while bizarrely and oxymoronically claiming that he wants to ‘ensure the Internet remains open and prevent any practices that threaten it’).
While the debate has raged, US telecoms giants (who have campaigned against net neutrality for years) wasted no time in exploiting January’s court ruling, gleefully abandoning any pretense at providing a level internet playing field.
Both Comcast and Verizon, who both run cable TV companies and resent the success internet streaming firm Netflix has enjoyed, almost immediately moved to throttle Netflix traffic, claiming that it was responsible for over 30 percent of peak internet usage, and was therefore unfairly hogging bandwidth.
As an this argument this is frankly specious, since surely their customers pay for high bandwidth precisely so they can do things such as stream Netflix, a point made by CEO Reed Hastings in a highly critical yet sharply observed blog post,
“When an ISP sells a consumer a 10 or 50Mbps internet package, the consumer should get that rate, no matter where the data is coming from. ISPs want us to share in their costs. But they don’t also offer for Netflix or similar services to share in the ISPs revenue, so cost-sharing makes no sense.”
Netflix did reach a deal with Comcast where it agreed to pay for equal access to bandwidth (at least until the FCC makes its decision), but this has clearly left a bitter taste in its mouth.
If the FCC sides with the telecoms giants then we can expect to see a much more ‘cable-like’ internet ecosystem in the US, where users pay for internet ‘channels’ such as YouTube and Facebook, and have to pay a premium to gain unrestricted access to the internet (Sprint’s new Virgin Mobile Custom plan in fact does precisely this).
Fortunately, VPN provides an at least partial solution to ISP throttling, and can help defeat attempts to create a two (or more) tier internet. In July, Colin Nederkoorn, CEO of Customer.io, performed a series of tests in which using VPN improved his connection speeds when streaming Netflix over his Verizon connection tenfold!
VPN can do this because it hides all a users’ internet activity inside an encrypted tunnel, so an ISP cannot see what traffic is being accessed. Unfortunately it is possible to simply throttle or block all VPN traffic, although this would be detrimental to the many businesses which rely on VPN to operate securely (not that this necessarily prevents ISPs from trying it).
IronSocket cares passionately about net neutrality, and while meeting new threats takes time and requires the development of new strategies, we are committed to help our customers achieve unrestricted access to the internet. The latest IronSocket development is our new Network 2.0 platform, where our users can use a VPN connection with no encryption, a great feature for streaming content faster than an encrypted VPN connection.