What isn't Net Neutrality?

One of the larger debates raging about the Internet over the past few months has been net neutrality. I have written a bit about it and the ways that we grow and change the Internet, but I see two different things conflated into net neutrality.

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is the universal treatment of all Internet traffic equally. You ISP cannot, for instance, get two chunks of data from different sources and make one go to you faster than the other.

To visualize this imagine you built a freeway. It runs from the suburbs through a few wealthy neighborhoods and a few poorer neighborhoods. At each on ramp there is a red or green light metering who gets on the freeway. Think about the reaction if the wealthier neighborhoods got 3 green lights for every 1 green light in the poor neighborhood. The same amount of traffic is on the highway, but because the rich neighborhood gets to go first cars coming from them make their whole trip faster, instead of having to wait before getting on. If you think of the rich neighborhood as Google’s data center, the poor neighborhood as a young upstart and the freeway as the connection through Verizon to your house, that’s exactly what happens without “neutrality”.

This doesn’t really matter when the whole freeway has plenty of space for everyone to get a green light. But the reality is that our infrastructure is filling up and needs some periodic upgrades - a new lane on that freeway. The debate about widening this crosses into the main point of congestion, and that brings up the real point of this:

What isn’t net neutrality?

The discussion about the death of net neutrality has largely been about Netflix and their deals with Comcast and Verizon to “peer” with one another. This is not net neutrality. Netflix needs to talk to Verizon, but sometimes it has to pass through a middle man, and they pass it on to Verizon. It’s this points where the data moves that are often a battleground for payment. Verizon thinks that Netflix should connect directly or that their ISP should pay Verizon in order to exchange data. It’s not about unequal treatment of traffic, but about how big the connection is between the two and how many other people have to help Netflix go from their servers to the home. In that conversation, there’s no prioritization, no action that’s less than neutral. Netflix sees congestion between your laptop and their servers and needs to get to your particular corner of the Internet faster.

So why does it matter?

Mixing these two different, but related, concepts in the mainstream media has one concerning effect. Netflix’s ISP having a hard time convincing Verizon to upgrade their interlink is an old thing. The Internet has operated for years with these peering agreements and their periodic outbursts. Mixing that together with real net neutrality makes it all the more simple for Comcast and Verizon to sidestep real net neutrality by saying that nothing is new about that. Trouble is “that” to them is peering agreements - but to everyone else it’s neutrality.