Network Neutrality may not be what you think it is

So Comcast is peering with Netflix now. To believe the flitter on my twitter feed this weekend, this is actually worse news than what’s coming out of Venezuela or Kiev. And under the flag of “Network Neutrality,” many are claiming this is the end of the Internet, un-American, more evil than that 10% of Google, confirmation of Half-Life 3, or other random things.

Good write-up on this just showed up at streamingmedia.com … more technical detail lives over there, check it out if you like.

I’ve seen arguments like “I have a cable modem at home, therefore Comcast should not be allowed to connect directly to Netflix and give me better service at the same price” and “Netflix should connect to the Internet, not to Comcast.” Neither of these really makes much sense to me.

But I may be misunderstanding net neutrality. Here’s where I’m coming from.

A description I’ve seen on Wikipedia defines network neutrality as treating data equally without discrimination based on “user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication.” I’m okay with this definition, until I see a better one. Comments section is below, folks.

There’s nothing in there that says a provider can’t choose how they connect to the Internet, or to other providers on the Internet. There’s actually nothing in there that absolutely defines what “the Internet” means. But if you can accept a definition of “the Internet” that includes network providers that connect to each other to get your traffic from where it’s coming from to where it’s going, whether you’re an individual/business providing a network service or an individual/business consuming a network service, you start to see how this peering agreement may not be a network neutrality violation.

Larger networked companies have been doing this for quite some time, including (I believe) the #2 consumer of residential Internet traffic. (The data on this chart are from early-to-mid 2013, but I suspect it’s conservatively believable in scale.) I’m pretty sure peering has been around since at least 1996, although it may have been more of a luxury then for “smaller” providers.

The argument that “we don’t know all the details so we must assume the worst” doesn’t hold much water either… as some folks have noted, it’s easy to assume the worst for a company with the reputation of Comcast, but it’s just as easy (and a bit more logical) to assume that a technically competent network service provider would look to optimize the path for a third to half of their customers’ network consumption.

A bus route would look to stop close to where its riders want to go; a stop at the far end of the mall parking lot makes less sense than a stop in front of a major entrance or popular retailer, for example. Is the fact of the bus not stopping in front of Hot Topic and Sbarro aswell (if you’re lucky enough to still have one) unfair? Not really.

Now to be fair, there’s a possibility that Comcast was doing something truly evil to Netflix traffic. Maybe they routed all Netflix traffic through a stack of WRT54G routers with cascaded NAT. Or maybe they had congestion issues in some areas. Maybe something between Comcast and Netflix broke. Maybe net neutrality requires an end to oversubscription. Maybe we’ll never know. (I think two of those are pretty unlikely though.)

For now, however, if you want to confuse the net neutrality concept, or distract from more substantial issues, or just troll people on the Internet, you should feel free to keep arguing that peering violates network neutrality. But if you’re not that sort of person, step back a bit, wait for actual supportive evidence one way or the other, and worst case, watch a Hulu video instead.

And a message I share on twitter every month seems pertinent here, so I’ll leave you with this:

Disclaimer: I am a Comcast residential customer, Netflix streaming customer, as well as a residential customer of an early adopter of Netflix Open Connect. I pay for all three services out of my own pocket. I’m only really fond of one of them, and it’s the least pertinent of the three to this story.

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