Scitech  Neutralizing the net

Legislators and Internet users have different ideas of what a non-discriminatory Internet means

For eight days in July, the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) conducted a series of hearings and debates on the topic of net neutrality. Held in Gatineau, Quebec, the CRTC reviewed the Internet traffic management practices of Internet service providers (ISPs), hearing from well-known providers including Bell, Rogers, Telus, Shaw, Cogeco, and Videotron, as well as smaller ISPs, networking equipment companies, and a number of concerned consumer groups in an attempt to determine whether current Internet management policies are acceptable.

The final decisions are expected by the end of November, but with the CRTC primarily concerned with detailed regulatory legalities, some of net neutrality’s cornerstone principles could get overlooked. Stricter regulations may not pave the way for the equal, accessible Internet that users are bandying for.

What net neutrality means
Marshall Eubanks, Chair of the Internet Engineering Task Force in the United States, associates the controversy surrounding net neutrality with a lack of definitive clarity.

“I think net neutrality is one of those terms that has different meanings for different people and that’s…part of the problem with it. There’s a lot of noise about net neutrality,” says Eubanks. “There’s a lot of misinformation and disinformation.”

In a legal setting, net neutrality is often associated with a very technical definition, and refers specifically to prohibiting differential treatment of Internet packets such as intentionally slowing down one type of online program, but not another. To many people, a neutral network means more than that – essentially, an Internet free of any type of content restriction and serving as an open space for free speech.

A closer look at Deep Packet Inspection
ISPs use deep packet inspection to look under the layers of a chunk of Internet data traveling from one computer to another. Shallow inspection refers to simple Internet Protocol (IP) address recognition that tells the technology where to send the packet while deep inspection gives the network more information about what you are using a given program for. Eubanks compares it to reading the private contents of a letter rather than simply looking at the envelope’s address.

Deep packet inspection is central to more than one definition of net neutrality, since it enables ISPs to informatively decide if they want to slow a user’s Internet speed, for congestive or competitive reasons, or block them from specific content altogether.

“My personal feeling about many of these things,” says Eubanks, “is if I’m paying for a service, I expect it to come. If the postman says ‘Well, you’re going to get these letters one day, but…the post office is going to provide its own DVD rental service, so Netflix will take two weeks to get to you,’ I’d object to that. So that is where deep packet inspection really starts rearing its head.”

Why do ISPs impose restrictions?
Many telecommunications companies contend that prioritizing Internet traffic is a necessary management tool, and Bell Canada claims that this is the best way for them to serve their customers during peak congestion times.

“[Our traffic shaping practices] are designed to improve the overall user experience for the vast majority of users,” says John Daniels, Vice-President, Regulatory Law for Bell Canada, in the recorded transcripts of the CRTC proceedings on July 14, 2009.

Some ISPs offer their customers access to more programs more frequently, but at a higher price. Still, there is reason to believe that this type of net neutrality restriction might not have very much clout in the near future. The fourth day of the CRTC hearings brought forth expert opinion that the latest technology is surprisingly more than adequate to handle the current Internet traffic demand.

The Canadian disadvantage
Canada has far fewer “big-name” Internet service providers to choose from, making a truly competitive market unattainable, at least for the moment. Milton Mueller, a professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies, takes note of the difference across the border from the United States.

“I believe that if you had a fully competitive market, there’d be almost no discrimination and no net neutrality problem because no Internet service provider really gets a competitive advantage from blocking certain services and certain kinds of traffic that some of their customers might want,” Mueller says. “It’s when they do have some market power that they’re able to make those discriminations and then…impose them on you.”

Where we’re headed
The CRTC in Canada and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States are both working at net neutrality from a technical regulatory standpoint, an approach that Mueller dislikes.

“I’d like to see net neutrality operated…not as a detailed regulation,” he says, “but as a principle that customers have the right to access any content -any lawful content- on the Internet that they like.”