Protecting network neutrality: both important and hard

  2014-08-19

Protecting network neutrality: both important and hard

  06:14, by Hagai Bar-El   , 2362 words
Categories: Security Policies

What is "net neutrality"?

We will start with a proposed technical definition.

Network neutrality is the adherence to the paradigm that operation at a certain layer, by a network component (or provider) that is chartered for operating at that layer, is not influenced by interpretation of the processed data at higher layers.

Reading the section above should make this statement seem trivial. After all, network neutrality is an intended feature of the Internet. As I wrote earlier, a component operating at a certain layer is not required to understand the data it processes at higher layers. The network card operating at Layer 2 does not need to know that it is sending an e-mail message (Layer 7). It only needs to know that it is sending a frame (Layer 2) with a certain opaque payload. Net-neutrality is thus built into the Internet.

When expanding the notion of net neutrality from the purely technical domain to the service domain, I propose to define network neutrality as the adherence to the paradigm that operation of a service at a certain layer is not influenced by any data other than the data interpreted at that layer, and in accordance with the protocol specification for that layer.

Therefore, a service provider is said to operate in net neutrality if it provides the service in a way what is strictly "by the book", where "the book" is the specification of the network protocol it implements as its service. Its operation is network-neutral if it is not impacted by any other logic other than that of implementing the network layer protocol that it is chartered at implementing. An ISP (Internet Service Provider) who is entrusted by you to deliver your packets at Layer 3 over the Internet, shall perform its duty according to the specification, without accounting for any other information other than the Layer 3 interpretation of the network traffic, and without influence by any other logic other than the Layer 3 networking specification. For example, an ISP that looks into the Layer 7 interpretation of the traffic sent through it to determine the contents of e-mail messages, and who blocks traffic based on such content, is violating net neutrality. Similarly, an ISP that is entrusted with sending your Layer 3 packets over the net but which blocks access to particular websites, is also violating net neutrality. The first case matches a violation of net neutrality also by the technical definition, because the violating ISP processed the data at Layer 7 (e-mail contents) although its role is to provide Internet routing at Layer 3. The second example does not violate net neutrality in the technical sense, because the destination address is part of Layer 3 data. However, it violates net neutrality as applied to a network service, because it used the interpreted data (destination address) in a way that is not part of the networking specification. The destination address is supposed to be used for routing traffic, not for discriminating between destination addresses.

Service net neutrality today

Service providers have mixed emotions when it comes to network neutrality. On one hand, they claim to exercise net neutrality when it serves them, but on the other hand, they seek ways to violate net neutrality whenever it makes economical sense. When the content industry complained to ISPs that their users use their service to illegally download copyrighted movies, the ISPs rightfully claimed that they are just the pipe, and are not responsible for the actual contents of whatever flows on their wires. On the other hand, ISPs regularly carry out "packet shaping" to manage their overall outgoing bandwidth. Packet shaping is the operation of assigning priorities to traffic based on its type. For instance, an ISP may send traffic of interactive sessions (such as web browsing) faster than traffic of user not-present operations, such as nightly file downloads, because the user will not notice anyway.

Packet shaping can barely be considered as legitimate. When you pay for a certain bandwidth, you expect to get that bandwidth regardless of what you choose to use it for. But if packet shaping is in the lighter shade of grey, some net neutrality violations are on the yet darker side.

Lately, we have seen attempts by ISPs to legalize packet shaping for direct commercial reasons. One plan ISPs have is to allow service providers to pay extra for having user traffic directed to them to be delivered with higher priority (i.e., often at a higher speed). For example, Netflix may one day be able to pay an ISP to have its users connect to Netflix faster than they would to competing services. This is a clear violation of net neutrality. You, as a user, expect the ISP to implement Internet routing for you, regardless of what you decide to do with this connectivity. Moreover, the service provider trusts that whoever connects his customers to the Internet, does that with impartiality and does not play favorites among service providers based on who pays more.

Next, we are to learn why net neutrality is important enough to be legally enforced, in brief, and yet why it is so difficult, all on page 3.

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1 comment

Comment from: Alyse [Visitor]

Excellent explanation. Started out thinking there was no way this was going to make sense then it all came together

2016-07-14 @ 04:57


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