Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Toll roads on the Internet

Adam Livingstone, the BBC's supposed ubergeek, discusses the controversy over network neutrality here.

He starts off with a promising analogy:

So there's me driving up to Homebase to get some new wine glasses for my posh media chums to come round and watch the World Cup. And I get to within half a mile of the store and my car starts to slow down.

Before I know it, I'm doing five miles an hour. What's more, half the other cars around me are doing the same. But the cars on the other side of the road are all fine. So I turn round and head home and suddenly it's all back to normal. "What on earth is going on?" as our man Paxman would say.

What's going on is the end of road-neutrality: the people who own the road have done a deal to slow down traffic going to places other than their business partners' stores.

Of course, this isn't possible with traffic on the road, but it is absolutely possible to do it to traffic on the Internet. The telecommunication companies that own the main Internet lines want to discriminate against Internet traffic that hasn't paid a little bit extra (or maybe a lot extra).

Lovely email you've got here, shame if it took a week to be delivered.

After such a promising start, Livingstone utterly loses his grip on reality and comes up with this clanger:

In a network neutral world, every piece of internet data is treated equally.

So much for Livingstone's credentials as ubergeek. Nothing can be further from the truth. In reality, networks do discriminate all the time, and rightly so, between pieces of data. But what they do is discriminate on the basis of the type of data, not on the basis of where it is going to or coming from. Network bandwidth is a scarce resource, and your ISP is perfectly entitled to give a priority to web traffic over BitTorrent, or email over Usernet. And you, as a customer, are perfectly entitled to shop around for an ISP that will give priority to whatever types of traffic you care the most about.

What's different about this proposal is that it isn't coming from the ISPs, it is coming from the telecos who control the underlying infrastructure. You can shop around and find an ISP who will offer you a better service, but you are utterly 100% hostage to the telecos who control the infrastructure. If they start slowing down traffic from your website, you can't escape by changing to a different hosting company or ISP. The telecos have a gun pointed at your head, and they know it.

Individuals on the Internet can and do discriminate between where traffic is coming from (or going to) as well. This, called policy routing or traffic shaping, is technically harder to do, as well as less common, but hardly unknown. And this too is perfectly acceptable, as it is done by the user. (Although perhaps not the ultimate end user sitting at the PC trying to surf the web.) If your boss wants to give priority to Internet traffic which is important to him over other traffic, that's perfectly acceptable: he's paying the bills and he gets to choose. That sort of network discrimination is no more unfair than you deciding that you're going to give more attention to your children than to random strangers you pass in the street.

What the telcos want to do is change the ground rules. Instead of you choosing where your own priorities lie, they want to choose for you. And they want to choose in such a way that they are making more money: pay us extra or else we'll slow your web traffic way down.

Livingstone also declares:

... if toll roads are to be allowed on the internet, then someone has to build them, and that means jobs for the hardware boys. But the internet companies may not fancy having to pay those tolls and dance attendance on a new gatekeeper.

I'm not exactly sure what planet Livingstone is from. The internet is already made of toll roads, and nothing but toll roads. Google and Yahoo pay for their bandwidth. Your ISP pays for the bandwidth they use, and passes some portion of those charges on to you. The telcos are already being paid handsomely for building their infrastructure. It's all toll roads on the internet.

Perhaps it never crossed Livingstone's mind that the Beeb is paying for his internet access at work. But surely the ubergeek has an internet connection at home -- doesn't he get a monthly or quarterly bill from an ISP? Or did he think it just came free, out of the goodness of the ISP's heart?

At which point enter our old friend the BitTorrent. You'll recall that this protocol has lately spread across the internet like Japanese knotweed, gobbling up perhaps a third of internet capacity, so that many service providers have virtually banned it from their networks before they become choked up completely.

Technically that is perhaps a violation of network neutrality, but one born of practicality rather than any darker motive, they would argue if they were here. Anyway the main losers are pirates and they can look after themselves.

Shame on Livingstone for pushing the same old tired myth that BitTorrent is just about piracy. That's a dark slander: BitTorrent is used for distributing content of many kinds, not just illegal files. It has revolutionised the legal distribution of software. For instance, BitTorrent is ideal for distributing Linux LiveCDs and other ISO images, which tend to be very large files legally made available to large numbers of people.

But of course, Livingstone knows that BitTorrent is not just for pirates, because a few sentences later he says:

To which end he's done a deal with Warner Brothers to help them to distribute their movies on BitTorrent.

Later in the article, Livingstone states:

To go back to our analogy, it's not that your car will necessarily slow down when you head to Homebase. It's just that you'll suddenly start travelling at several hundred miles per hour if you go to the rival store. They're not doing anything to harm your surfing.

But of course this is sheer nonsense. The telcos aren't offering premium faster services -- if they were, nobody would be concerned. We already know that if you go to Google, who pays for the use of great big fat pipes, you'll typically get a faster response than from a website hosted on somebody's home PC. Likewise, caching is nothing new.

What's new is the threat from the telecos to discriminate across the board, to slow down all traffic not on the basis of what it is but on the basis of where it is coming from or going to.

Ed Felten from Freedom to Tinker gives a good technical and legal overview of network discrimination:

The technical issues: link and link

How the internet responds to congestion: link

Why encryption isn't the answer: link

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