Monday, October 30, 2006

Network Neutrality

Some members of our community have worked on network protocols that use economic mechanisms to distribute bandwidth throughout the network. Would this research violate the concept of network neutrality? That depends on what you mean by network neutrality.

The Internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee writes

It is of the utmost importance that, if I connect to the Internet, and you connect to the Internet, that we can then run any Internet application we want, without discrimination as to who we are or what we are doing. We pay for connection to the Net as though it were a cloud which magically delivers our packets. We may pay for a higher or a lower quality of service. We may pay for a service which has the characteristics of being good for video, or quality audio. But we each pay to connect to the Net, but no one can pay for exclusive access to me.
So an ISP like Comcast could accept money from say Disney to distribute their bits faster as long as they make the same deal available to all other content providers.

Some people take a more stringent view like the (failed) Markey Amendment to the COPE Act.

Each network provider has the duty to operate its broadband network in a non-discriminatory manner so that any person can offer or provide content, applications, and services through, or over, such broadband network with equivalent or better capability than the provider tends to itself or affiliated parties, and without the imposition of a charge for such nondiscriminatory network operation.
The amendment would have required ISPs to provide the same service to all content providers without additional charge. This might prevent any market mechanism for bandwidth distribution.

Our role as theorists is not to debate the ethical issues of network neutrality but rather to help frame the debate by understanding the technical issues raised by the various definitions of network neutrality and how these rules can affect the overall efficiency of routing bits through the net.


  1. There are so many other issues which should be discussed before we go to network neutrality. I can coin a similar term 'Educational Neutrality'. With this I mean that whereever in the world a person borns, he should get the same level of education irrespective of his race, religion, cast and parental influence.

  2. And going all the way, we should have 'material neutrality'; that is, every person, no matter how much they make or where they live, should have access to the same goods and same experiences.

    Maybe this illustrates the absurdity of thinking of these things in black and white terms.

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  4. The type of "neutraility" being described in the first two comments isn't the same thing at all.

    Net neutrality has to do with equality for providers, not consumers. It certainly doesn't say everyone should have equal access to the internet. Instead, it insists that (by some definition), a particular individual's access shouldn't favor some content providers over others.

    Perhaps net neutrality is analogous to requiring that stores do not favor selling certain products/brands. Or perhaps its like requiring that a local school system not favor certain subjects (or teachers). Regardless, these (questionable) analogies don't offer much insight into what policy is appropriate for the internet.

    It's only natural that the distribution of a limited resource (bandwidth) be resolved with money, but its certainly not clear that letting bandwith go to the highest bidder will lead to a good outcome for society at a whole (I certainly don't think so). As Lance said, the theory community should be informing this debate by exploring what outcomes result from a given policy.

  5. The term "Internet Neutrality" is of no relevance now. There are many other ways to achieve the same goal. Infact it is being done now. Two good examples are google maps and youtube. If you had used these services then you'll notice that the data comes from many sources rather than one. They have not paid the ISPs to stream the data better than anyone else. Moreover this approach is cheaper and better from the point of view of the content provider and the customer.

    PS: Above are my views.

  6. Network neutrality is a legislation proposal. A legislation must be enact when it is needed. So the burden of proving the need of the neutrality lies with the content provider.

    A theoretical view point:

    Till now the network was neutral without any explicit law. If neutrality is the best option for future too, then the market mechanisms will make sure that it remains neutral. If neutrality is not the best option then market forces will let it go.

    But if enact a legislation of network neutrality then we are okay in the former case and less than optimal in the latter, i.e., in case neutrality is not the best option for future we still have to deal with it.

    Disclaimer: The commentator is a Microsoft employee. The views expressed are his own and no inference must be made in regards to his employer's views.