Chapter 9: Net Neutrality and the Digital Divide
A widely cited example of a violation of net neutrality principles was when the Internet service provider Comcast was secretly slowing (colloquially called “throttling”) uploads from peer-to-peer file sharing (P2P) applications using forged packets. Research suggests that a combination of policy instruments will help realize the range of valued political and economic objectives central to the network neutrality debate. Combined with strong public opinion, this has led some governments to regulate broadband Internet services as a public utility, similar to the way electricity, gas and water supply is regulated, along with limiting providers and regulating the options those providers can offer.
Discrimination by protocol
Discrimination by protocol is the favoring or blocking information based on aspects of the communications protocol that the computers are using to communicate. In the US, a complaint was filed with the Federal Communications Commission against the cable provider, Comcast, alleging they had illegally inhibited users of its high-speed Internet service from using popular file-sharing software, Bit Torrent. Comcast admitted no wrongdoing in its proposed settlement of up to US$16 dollars per share in December 2009. However, a U.S. appeals court ruled in April 2010 that the FCC exceeded its authority when it sanctioned Comcast in 2008 for deliberately preventing some subscribers from using peer-to-peer file-sharing services to download large files. However, the FCC spokeswoman Jen Howard responded, “the court in no way disagreed with the importance of preserving a free and open Internet, nor did it close the door to other methods for achieving this important end [goal].” In spite of the ruling in favor of Comcast, a study by Measurement Lab in October 2011 verified that Comcast had virtually stopped its BitTorrent throttling practices.
Discrimination by IP address
During the 1990s, creating a non-neutral Internet was technically infeasible. Originally developed to filter harmful malware, the Internet security company NetScreen Technologies released network firewalls in 2003 with so-called deep packet inspection capabilities. Deep packet inspection helped make real-time discrimination between different kinds of data possible, and is often used for Internet censorship. In a practice called zero-rating, companies will reimburse data use from certain addresses, favoring use of those services. Examples include Facebook Zero and Google Free Zone. These zero-rating practices are especially common in the developing world.
Sometimes Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will charge some companies, but not others, for the traffic they cause on the ISP’s network. French telecom operator Orange, complaining that traffic from YouTube and other Google sites consists of roughly 50% of total traffic on the Orange network, made a deal with Google, in which they charge Google for the traffic incurred on the Orange network. Some also thought that Orange’s rival ISP Free throttled YouTube traffic. However, an investigation done by the French telecommunications regulatory body revealed that the network was simply congested during peak hours.
Favoring private networks
Proponents of net neutrality argue that without new regulations, Internet service providers would be able to favor their own private protocols over others. ISPs are able to encourage the use of specific services by utilizing private networks to discriminate what data is counted against bandwidth caps. For example, Comcast struck a deal with Microsoft that allowed users to stream television through the Xfinity app on their Xbox 360s without it affecting their bandwidth limit. However, utilizing other television streaming apps, such as Netflix, HBO Go, and Hulu, counted towards the limit. Comcast denied that this infringed on net neutrality principles since “it runs its Xfinity for Xbox service on its own, private Internet protocol network.”
There is some disagreement about whether “peering” is a net neutrality issue. In the first quarter of 2014, streaming website Netflix reached an arrangement with ISP Comcast to improve the quality of its service to Netflix clients. This arrangement was made in response to increasingly slow connection speeds through Comcast over the course of 2013, where average speeds dropped by over 25% of their values a year before to an all-time low. After the deal was struck in January 2014, the Netflix speed index recorded a 66% increase in connection. Netflix agreed to a similar deal with Verizon in 2014 after Verizon DSL customers connection speed dropped to less than 1 Mbit/s early in the year. Netflix spoke out against this deal with a controversial statement delivered to all Verizon customers experiencing low connection speeds using the Netflix client. This sparked an internal debate between the two companies that led to Verizon obtaining a cease and desist order on 5 June 2014 that forced Netflix to stop displaying this message.