Network Neutrality: Classification of Arguments For and Against

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This page aims to distinguish different arguments and reasoning in the debate around network neutrality, or control over traffic transmission on digital networks. The creation of this page was prompted by a view that people arguing for and against network neutrality use multiple definitions of the term and mix together many arguments on different levels. The purpose of this page is not to air polemics, but to elucidate the various points made for and against various forms of network neutrality.

The document treats network neutrality is a business practice, and therefore does not cover related topics such as copyright enforcement, censorship, and surveillance in detail. Essentially, the document covers a public issue that started as a set of economic concerns and has been invested by debaters with moral concerns.


Varieties of intervention in Internet traffic

Much confusion among the public, and many instances of debaters talking past each other, are caused by the possibility of differentiating among Internet traffic in many different ways.

In all these cases, an Internet service provider monitors traffic at its routers and chooses to drop certain packets entirely or to send them at a slower frequency. When traffic uses TCP, dropping selected packets near the beginning of a session causes the sender to throttle back the speed of transmission, because TCP assumes that the lack of acknowledgment indicates a congested route.

A router is normally expected to check only crude indicators of traffic such as IP address and port (characteristics stored in Internet packets at the Internet Protocol level). Deep packet inspection is a technique permitted by faster and more sophisticated routers, letting them look at more fine-grained elements of the session and even at application-layer data.

Differentiation by service (port, protocol)

Business case

Services that use a lot of bandwidth in a sustained manner can have trouble cohabiting the lines with other traffic. Voice over IP used to fall into this category, although no the protocols have reduced its demands and the bandwidth in most places has increased to the point where it is not a problem, and streaming video has replaced it as a concern. Streaming media such as voice and video are the high-bandwidth transfes that concern both users and ISPs, because any delays except the most minor ones introduce noticeable problems such as jitter, hanging, and indecipherable voice content. Non-streaming services simply take longer to transmit material, but users often don't notice.

By detecting streams and giving them higher bandwidth, ISPs can provide a more desirable service. Differentiation can be accomplished by directing the streams onto different lines reserved for high-priority traffic or by privileging the packets over other traffic. Customers have traditionally reserved high-priority lines and paid extra. Using the same lines would allow an ISP more fine control and more options in offering enhanced services and charging higher revenue for them.

Potentially, if specialized new services become popular (telemedicine and long-distance education are often cited), the ISP can provide the high bandwidth needed for the services and charge the users on one or both ends. If the provider of the service is charged, the charge would presumably be reflected in service fees.

On the other hand, some ISPs have seen VoIP and video streaming as competition, particularly when the ISP is offered by a company that also offers telephone service of cable TV. Thus, these ISPs have been known to ban VoIP or video streaming and take steps to detect and block them.

Although most Internet services have traditionally been offered to individual end-users for free (or more likely, with embedded advertising to pay for them), businesses have paid for Software as a Service for some time, and there is a trend toward end-user services charging subscription fees, such as some journalistic sites. The popularity of services running on mobile devices provides another opportunity for user fees to be introduced on the Internet. Differentiation by ISPs (especially mobile companies) among services allow them to charge for a service and perhaps share the revenue with the site providing the service.

From the beginning of the network neutrality debate, phone and cable companies have claimed that charging for Internet service--usually, charging the provider rather than the end-user--is necessary to provide the funds to bring higher bandwidth to areas that are currently underserved. Differentiated service is seen as a way to promote innovation in networks. In addition to allowing phone and cable companies to differentiate themselves--one perhaps being seen as a friendly site for games, another for telemedicine, etc.--it can also help Internet sites to differentiate themselves on the application layer. For instance, one Internet site can offer faster access to its content by paying for higher bandwidth.

Technical means

Services such as email, the web, and DNS traffic traditionally use different ports to make it easy to route traffic to the right program, although this is not universally true and some programs deliberately use ports meant for others (especially port 80, which is usually open, at least for incoming traffic, because it is assigned to the Web). Thus, although peer-to-peer file transfers could be considered a distinct service, the programs do not use well-known ports and must be detected in other ways.

A router can therefore check the port number for a preliminary indication of the traffic being carried. Because programs can use other programs' ports and the port numbers indicate nothing about the actual traffic going between services, deep packet inspection is often used to determine the type of service in use.

For instance, many ISPs want to detect Voice over IP for a variety of reasons: to give its packets a higher privilege because it's a streaming service and therefore subject ot jitter, to block the service because the ISP considers it a competitor to its own voice service, or to offer surveillance to law enforcement. Voice over IP tends to use many ports, often including port 80. Therefore, it is usually detected by building into the router a sophisticated understanding of its protocols. A protocol includes various standard forms of data at the start or end of a message (headers and footers), as well as a strict set of messages exchanged to start, end, or manage a session.

Technical objections

  • Differentiation introduces more variability into a network whose behavior is already unpredictable. Network administrators trying to allocate routing equipment and resources will find their plans frustrated by traffic shaping upstream by ISPs.
  • Deep packet inspection introduces more delay overall, although the delay should be absorbed by the ISP doing the inspection by installing faster routers.

Economic objections

  • Providing preferred delivery to customers who pay extra is a policy that rests on, and reinforces, an assumption that valuable services can afford to pay for their delivery. Privilege is given to services provided by well-established and well-endowed organizations, services who can draw substantial funding, or services that can persuade new users to pay a premium.
  • Services are more likely to charge money in the race for preferential treatment by ISPs.
  • Whereas adequate response time (with occasional outages or blips in speed) was taken for granted as part of standard Internet service, it will now require extra payments. Some services that might have been started in a low-cost environment may never be started or may not develop an audience because the innovators cannot afford to provide the response time to which users are accustomed. This concern is related to the first concern in this list. There are questions, however, as to whether preferential delivery can create such large disparities in response time that new services will really be hampered.

Moral objections

  • Because ISPs, as owners of the lines, can decide whom to contract with for preferential service, they get to "pick winners and losers" and will effectively have undue influence over other businesses as well as forms of social interaction.
  • ISPs might use their power to censor sites (by downgrading their service) or turn social and political debate to topics of their preference.
  • Most of the ISPs discussing differential services own the "last mile" or "middle mile" in the chain of networks connecting end users, but are making decisions that affect other network providers. This argument has to deal with the history of the Internet as a voluntary association of many providers, each of whom has the right to make individual decisions about how to run its network.

Legal remedies

  • Complaints about discrimination could be dealt with through laws on competition and monopoly, on an individual basis, by such bodies as the Federal Communications Commission or Federal Trade Commission.
  • The FCC could require ISPs to act as common carriers toward services above them. A federal appeals court ruled in April 2010 that the FCC (in a suit brought by Comcast) lacked the authority to require this neutrality. The suit concerned blocking service through traffic analysis, but applies equally to any form of differentiation chosen by an ISP. The FCC could attempt to reassert authority by reclassifying Internet service, but many people believe Congress must or should be brought in to resolve the question through law. Many object to the ruling on:
    • Economic grounds, because it would disrupt the business plans cited earlier
    • Technical grounds, believing that regulations tend to overreach their objectives and, in this case, would prevent beneficial forms of traffic shaping
    • Moral grounds, thinking that ISPs should be allowed to contract in any manner they desire with their customers and that regulation would constrain customer choice as well as ISP choice. The argument is that customers will choose competitors if ISPs abuse their control.
  • Congress could require common carrier status for ISPs.
  • Competition could provide alternatives to customers, who could then leave ISPs who try to control their choices.

Differentiation by participants (IP address)

Business case

Differentiation is usually provided for pay or on some other contractual basis, so traffic needs to be tied to the organization that has contracted for the service. Organizations often contract for a particular Quality of Service measured in throughput. The ISP is not required to demonstrate a particular response time or other element of the user experience, because such measures can be subjective and are affected by many elements of the environment outside the performance of the network. But some aspects of quality, such as the number of packets sent, received, and dropped over a period of time, are easy to measure.

Technical means

Most people and institutions have one or more contiguous IP addresses assigned by their ISP. (A few institutions with historic roots in the Internet were assigned IP addresses directly.) Thus, the institution can be identified by its IP address. Many large organizations also contract with content delivery networks such as Akamai to cache content close to the users and deliver it from servers owned by the content delivery network.

Technical objections

The objections here are the same as for Differentiation by service (port, protocol).

Economic objections

  • Promising a particular Quality of Service is difficult because activity further downstream (among the other organizations carrying traffic from the ISP to other parts of the Internet) has effects on packet transmission. Differentiation on one end, in particular, has effects on the other end. Thus, ISPs may find it hard to provide reasonable contracts for differentiated service that can be monitored and enforced.

Moral objections

The objections here are the same as for Differentiation by service (port, protocol).

Legal remedies

The remedies here are the same as for Differentiation by service (port, protocol).

Differentiation by volume or density of traffic

Ban on "servers"

Types of Internet control not covered in this document

Several types of intervention in Internet traffic are not covered in this document because they are related only in indirect ways to the central ISP business issues expressed in the network neutrality debate.

Copyright enforcement

ISPs do not take on the task of detecting and stopping the unauthorized transfer of copyrighted material, such as P2P file sharing of videos and music recordings. However, copyright holders often demand cooperation from ISPs in stopping transfers or catching the parties involved, and use techniques related to the ones described in this paper, notably detecting transfers and using IP addresses to identify the party at one end. Furthermore, ISPs often cite the use of high-volume data transfers and P2P file sharing for illegal purposes as justification for traffic control.


Many of the techniques used to detect various types of transfers for business purposes can also be used for censorship, along with even more sophisticated techniques. For instance, governments often block access to IP addresses associated with news sources they disapprove of, or services used to proxy and hide data transfers.


The techniques in this document are often used by ISPs to support efforts by law enforcement to detect criminals or other people they want to track for any reason.

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