Put your ear to the proverbial rails in the world of IT News and you’ll likely hear rumblings of the giant, broad-reaching issue of “network neutrality.” The question of neutrality has been debated for about the last 8 years. On one side of the argument are advocates of neutrality. Behind the regulating, restricting, and monitoring network activity are the major providers and telecoms.
While definitions of what it means to be neutral vary somewhat, it can be generally understood to mean a broadband network free of restrictions on the following:
- What equipment may be attached
- Allowed modes of communication
- The type of content that may be found online
The question of neutrality has recently been returned to the spotlight by Comcast Internet. Comcast has begun limiting the bandwidth speeds of certain sites that make use of the file sharing protocol, BitTorrent. Like other peer to peer file sharing networks BitTorrent allows users to download and then share out any kind of content. Unlike other file sharing networks, BitTorrent reduces the load of a single file by splitting the transmission over a theoretically limitless number of computers. Movie downloads have become particularly popular. By making use of BitTorrent users can transmit files that are even several gigabytes relatively quickly, and certainly faster than the same download might be from a single server or shared computer.
Comcast claims that the network resources required to share files in this manner clog the network and cause bandwidth problems for customers not engaged in file sharing activity. This sounds reasonable, but there’s no evidence that any such clogging of network resources takes place due to file sharing or any other activity. It does raise some ethical questions as throttling back certain activities means Comcast has to take more than a cursory look into the private transmissions of its users.
So, what does this mean for the average Internet consumer? This could go one of two major directions.
- If providers are allowed to limit bandwidth at their discretion it means that service providers could set their price structures based on content, not just bandwidth. In other words, access to websites that feature streaming video would cost more than access to Wikipedia, for example. This assumes the service provider doesn’t have an online knowledge base that competes with Wikipedia.
- If the ‘net remains neutral it means that service providers would be required to set prices based on available transfer speeds alone, and not discriminate based on content. The downside is the government could become involved in the regulation of the offerings of service providers, and by extension the Internet.
Either way this is a complex issue full of subtleties, with consumers caught between the interests of big telecom companies and the government. In whatever manner this issue is resolved, it’s a fair bet the Internet will be changed forever.