Few topics in seem to generate as much furore as “net neutrality”. Lots of factors are at work here, including fear of creeping government interference and suspicion of big business. The latter isn’t helped when two industry titans, in this case Google and Verizon, have “secret” discussions, leading to a set of proposals of what, and how much should be regulated (in the US at any rate). However it’s interesting that any agreement was even possible between these two, given that Google has been a staunch supporter of neutrality, while Verizon, as a service provider, could be expected to favour tiered services. The compromise is an affirmation of non-discrimination for “broadband Internet access” and a requirement of “transparency” on the one hand, while allowing “reasonable network management” and “additional or differentiated services” on the other. An exclusion for wireless access and the caveat of “lawful” applied to content, applications and services have critics such as the EFF hot under the collar, but on the whole this does seem to be a step forward in the debate.
What net neutrality diehards don’t seem to want to acknowledge is that packet networks rely on statistical multiplexing in order to be economical. While a service provider may offer, say, a 20Mbit/s connection to all their subscribers, it’s infeasible to actually deliver packets at that speed to all of them simultaneously. The network relies on the fact that users generally don’t exploit their full bandwidth allocation all the time, in order to be able to deliver it to all users some of the time. When applications such as video streaming and peer-to-peer filesharing break this assumption, something has to give. Insisting on a “right” to run such applications regardless is akin to demanding a “right” to drive a car at its maximum speed all the time; in both cases this disregards the rights of other people using the same infrastructure. We’ve come to accept a system of speed limits on the roads and some equivalent mechanisms for networks are inevitable so that they can continue to function in the face of insatiable demand. Net neutralists need to engage in a debate about what limits are fair and how they are to be enforced, and Google should be applauded for doing just this rather than condemned as evil.