The Democracy Papers
Network neutrality | Hysteria makes for bad law
The Internet revolution is one of the greatest advances in communications since the dawn of humankind. With hundreds of billions of dollars invested in the past decade to build sophisticated high-speed networks, over 95 percent of American households today have access to broadband services.
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It goes by the unremarkable and unrevealing moniker, "network neutrality." Yet it represents one of the most important subjects brewing in the field of communications today. Network neutrality would ensure that Internet service providers (ISPs) such as AT&T and Verizon treat all content that goes across their networks the same. Consumer groups are pushing for a net-neutrality law that bans ISPs from degrading content and charging extra for Web sites to load as fast as possible. The issue is at the heart of a debate over peer-to-peer file-sharing networks.
The Internet revolution is one of the greatest advances in communications since the dawn of humankind. With hundreds of billions of dollars invested in the past decade to build sophisticated high-speed networks, over 95 percent of American households today have access to broadband services. In coming years, broadband will make us more educated and more productive, and will bring us unforeseen possibilities for news and entertainment.
Yet, with the yawning appetite of Americans for new games, films, music and new applications come difficult social challenges. How do we ensure our children's safety from online predators, and keep e-mail free from harassing spam mail? How do we ensure we become a truly connected nation where every neighborhood benefits from competition in broadband providers? And, how do we ensure that all broadband users are not cheated out of high-speed service because of the use of bandwidth-intensive applications?
This last issue has recently provoked controversy. Broadband providers like the telephone and cable companies have come under fire for software they use to manage heavy traffic jams on the Internet created by peer-to-peer (P2P) applications.
P2P technologies create giant file-sharing networks in which an end user can download movies, music and games from any personal computer connected to the network. P2P companies like BitTorrent broker the arrangements, providing downloadable software to file-sharing users. Made popular first by the famed Napster, P2P technologies are not without controversy — they are workshops for pirates of copyrighted music, films, games and software. On the other hand, properly used, P2P networks hold great promise of an efficient content-distribution system on the Internet.
But a minute number of broadband customers using the file-sharing networks can consume enormous amounts of the available bandwidth in your neighborhood — some estimate up to 90 percent. For instance, your neighbor requests a queue of 10 films and 40 songs. Then a few users make such requests and your high-speed broadband network experiences a gridlock. Your own e-mail or streamed video feed comes to a virtual halt.
Thus, broadband providers such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast use network-management tools to ensure P2P users can operate and trade legal content without impairing everyone else's broadband experience.
Because a network's bandwidth is a finite resource, the management tools function like traffic lights and yield signs. They seek an orderly way to allow heavy P2P-like traffic to flow without interfering with other users. At peak times, these tools send a signal to a high-bandwidth user that they will find the requested content when a lane opens on the information highway.
Recently, The Associated Press examined how these yield signs work during a high-congestion period on the Internet. While attempting to download the entire King James Bible using BitTorrent P2P software, the reporter received a signal that the download request would be delayed. AP reported this as an effort to somehow block content. However, had the reporter simply waited, the file would have arrived unadulterated once the bandwidth became available.
The reporter in this instance made an honest mistake. But hours after the news story was posted online, various civic groups were already demanding so-called "network-neutrality" regulations as a remedy.
The lesson here is not about a very good reporter's innocent mistake. The lesson is hysteria makes for bad law. Broadband providers have to manage their network to optimize the high-speed experience for every user. There's nothing objectionable about this management as long as providers do so in a content-agnostic manner.
Moreover, if some versions of the so-called network-neutrality rules were in place — versions that would prevent providers from managing the data flow in a content-agnostic manner — then bandwidth-intensive applications like P2P would literally shut down their network.
Many technology experts have said network neutrality is a solution in search of a problem. As CEO of a technology company, it's something much worse to me: a cure that is potentially worse than its theoretical disease. Examined closely, P2P systems tell us not that we need new Internet regulations, but rather that the wrong regulations could stunt the very promise that the Internet of tomorrow offers.Avis Yates Rivers is president and CEO of Technology Concepts Group, Inc. (TCGI), an information technology solutions provider based in Somerset, N.J. On the Web at www.technologyconcepts.com
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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