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Monday, June 26, 2006

Neutracide: Net Neutrality: Part XIII

By Cory Doctorow, InformationWeek
June 26, 2006

What Is Neutral, Anyway?

Additionally, the rules are going to have to do three incredibly tricky things:

1. Define network neutrality. This is harder than it sounds. If a Bell lets Akamai put one of its mirror servers in a central office, then Akamai's customers can get a better quality of service to the Bell's customers than those using an Akamai competitor. This is arguably a violation of net neutrality, but how do you solve it? It's probably not practical to require the Bells to let all comers put local caches on their premises; there's only so much rack space, after all.

Another tricky case: the University that provides a DSL service to its near-to-campus housing and configures its network to deliver guaranteed throughput to a courseware archive. It gets even stickier if the DSL and/or the courseware archive are supplied by commercial third parties. Poorly written net neutrality regulations could prevent universities from providing those services, which should be allowed.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Imagine a Bell that came up with a plan to let services tune their applications to improve on throughput to its customers. For example, some Bells might be able to tune service more efficiently by providing real-time feedback to companies about the optimal frame size for its network, or information on traversing its internal private networks, and so on. This is a good way to wring performance out of lines and switches, but the efficiencies decay if the Bell is legally required to provide this service to every customer, without being compensated for the additional effort.

2. Revise the definition of network neutrality in a way that keeps pace with new network realities. Next week, someone will come up with a way of tweaking the Internet that may not be neutral. It will happen again the week after, and the week after that. Whichever regulator gets to play neutrality czar will have to make rules that keep pace with those changes.

The definition must avoid the risk that the rules will fail to keep up with advancing technology, allowing the creation of a tiered Internet by means they today's regulators don't envision.

Even worse is the risk that the Bells (or someone else, like a far-future, calcified and thoroughly evil-fied Google) will get the rules changed to keep new entrants out of the market by declaring their businesses non-neutral.

3. Most difficult of all: Know when nonneutrality is committed, and stop it. It's not enough to prohibit the Bells from advertising the rate for tiered access to their pipes. The Bells have a long, dishonorable history of backroom deals with spammers, the National Security Agency, and other unsavory sorts.


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