As most people won’t wait more than four seconds for a page to load, the speed of delivery on the net has become more important than ever. In recent years, this need for speed has pitted companies that provide Internet services against web sites who want as much traffic as possible. What is at stake is net neutrality – the current state of affairs in which users can access Internet sites with equal speed, regardless of whether the site is eBay or mcgill.ca.
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) act as the intermediary information carriers between users and web sites. In recent years, in what has become largely a battle of revenues, ISPs have sought to implant tiered network infrastructure and charge web sites – or content providers – for services.
Large content providers, such as Yahoo!, eBay, and Google, receive much of their revenues from new applications and advertising. Their wealth depends in large part on the masses of visitors to their site. Dr. Muthucumaru Maheswaran, a computer science professor at McGill, explains that the ISPs, who make it possible for sites like eBay to have so many visitors, want a piece of the revenue pie.
“The people who actually make the networks are anxious because they’re not sharing that wealth,” he said.
Content providers, however, argue that ISPs would use tiered networks as a way to extort money for preferential services to those willing to pay.
As such, in recent years legislation has been drawn up across Europe and North America to address net neutrality. Its proponents support the current system, described as the end-to-end model. Vint Cerf, one of the pioneers of the Internet and a senior executive at Google, describes the net-neutral Internet as a network where data is transported without discrimination in regards to its source, origin, or content.
Others argue against net neutrality because it has constrained, and will likely continue to constrain, innovations in the information transfer techniques that allow the Internet to thrive. Without the competition that a non-neutral net provides, ISPs have little incentive to develop better ways to send information whizzing around the planet.
Maheswaran describes the Internet as an evolving ecosystem, and says that new regulations could hurt or help it. Yet he remains partly skeptical that regulation would benefit the net as a whole.
“Regulations…might actually hurt breakthrough ways of deploying applications and using applications,” he said.
Yet another concern in the net neutrality debate are antitrust issues and censorship. Some believe that the existence of a tiered network might foster an environment where independent media becomes unable to compete with large publishers, because large companies could pony up the cash for information highways to their sites. Small sites, on the other hand, would be in the information back country.
Such censoring has taken place in the past. In 2006, the Canadian branch of the phone corporation Telus blocked a site set up by the labour union during a labour dispute. Similarly, in other countries, ISPs have been compelled by governments to censor content. Without appropriate neutrality legislation here in Canada, ISPs may censor content that conflicts with their interests in the same way Telus censored the union.
Some argue that new regulations are not needed because, as long as antitrust legislations allowing competitive marketing are in place, the user has a range of choices. Such competitive ISP marketing exists in Europe. However, this poses a problem in places like Canada and the U.S., where there is little competition between Internet service providers. Without healthy competition, the few Canadian companies who control these services could band together to draw as much money out of Internet users as possible, and harm consumers as a result.
Many ISPs argue for tiered networks as a way of dealing with heavy weight content delivery on the Internet. Currently, information-heavy content, such as high–definition television, is not delivered via the net. Yet according to Maheswaran, a tiered system could allow such content to be Internet accessible.
“This is where the real need for tiered network might emerge. In the near future, everything might emerge into a digital network, and ISPs would have a huge role to play,” he said.
Many of the solutions that have emerged to preserve net neutrality have focused on legislation. The most important thing, argues Maheswaran, is that no sites disappear because of a non-neutral net.
“It is very important for us to make everyone aware of what kind of information is out there, so the bias is minimized and somebody doesn’t tell you whatever you are looking for does not exist,” he said.
Maintaining perfectly symmetric and neutral content delivery systems, while ideal, may prove to be too costly in the long run. However, a more sophisticated scheme in which neutrality is the topmost layer, while the network itself is adjusted to fit increasing demand, might work best.
In terms of the current conflict between content producer and distributors, as Maheswaran duly points out, “It looks like a debate that could go on forever.”