North Wind And Sun

Google: Net Neutrality’s Best Hope

Originally published in The Amherst Student on 4 FEB 2009

Nowadays, Internet-related matters seem to fall into two categories – those that involve Google and those that don’t. Google’s tendrils stretch far, reaching and grasping areas as disparate as privacy, advertising and cloud computing. The $10100 company’s most recent exploit delves into the shady subterranean world of net neutrality, a far from neutral subject made somewhat more famous by Ted “series of tubes” Stevens back in 2006. The notion is simple: Google, like many others, posits very strongly that when it comes to the Internet, all information should be on a level playing field. That is, Internet Service providers (ISPs) ISPs should not have the right to select which packets of information get priority over others. Net neutrality, in short, means exactly what it sounds like.

ISP’s, unsurprisingly, disagree. Companies like Comcast and Cox, for instance, argue that, when it comes to Internet bandwidth, it is often essential that the bandwidth of power users be throttled, or slowed down, to keep things smooth for everyone on the network. The frequent usage of peer-to-peer software, they argue, puts a tremendous strain on networks, justifying any sort of network management they see as necessary. And they practice what they preach. Last year, in a increasingly-starling turn of events, Comcast was discovered to have been partaking in the particularly insidious act of TCP package forging, which selected for heavy traffic usage and slowly applied pressure. People noticed, as did the FCC, which issued a ruling on Comcast’s practices: Cut it out.

And Comcast begrudgingly did just that. But for the net neutrality crew, it was a minor victory at best: That the FCC saw no need to penalize Comcast or issue any new legislation significantly weakened the strength of the ruling. And while President Obama made it a campaign promise to reinstate net neutrality laws while in office, a few organizations, including Google, aren’t holding their breaths.

Enter Measurement Lab, a collaborative effort from the Open Technology Institute, Planet Lab Consortium, The New America Foundation, and Google. The purpose of Mlab is to detect the sort of ISP interference that Comcast delved into, allowing for greater Internet service transparency and attempting to help users understand their Internet connections. Called a this point a proof-of-concept, Mlab seeks to allow this transparency via a number of online diagnostic tools. Glasnost, for instance, detects whether your ISP is shaping traffic, i.e, putting the squeeze on your torrent of Lost season one.  The somewhat unimaginatively-named Network Diagnostic Tool gives you an reading of your upload and download speeds, concerning itself especially with things like download inhibitors. Network Path and Application Diagnostic looks at what is called the “last network mile,” that is, the very, very small part of the network between your ISP and you. The last two tools – Diffprobe and NANO –  aren’t actually online yet but they promise to be just as essential as the other tools. NANO, for instance, is designed to determine whether only certain subsets of a network are being affected by a slowdown, a telltale sign of throttling.

My hope was to utilize some of these tools to determine their effectiveness, but, due to the collective orgasm that the Internet underwent when they were relased, Mlabs servers have been completely busy since last week. Which is a real shame, considering that the Internet in my room here at a Temple University Japan dormitory in southern Tokyo is throttled up the wazoo. It would be interesting to see how far that throttling goes.

So let’s just talk about Google. I like Google. They do an awesome job of getting me to point a to point b, from a search for “cute puppies” to actual videos of cute puppies. The trouble is, however, that while Google’s recent attempts to emancipate white spaces to the population, as well as their efforts to wield the blade of net neutrality – all of the company’s actions can also be chalked up to a thinly-veiled effort to plow the ground for future profit:  More users flocking to the Internet with unimpeded access means more and more Ad-sense dollars for Google.

While that might a strong possibility, I’d err on the side of turning a blind eye to Google’s potential profit motives in this particular case. The net-neutrality issue is a very real one, and will certainly have a great effect on how the Internet will look in the coming years. If ISPs were allowed to shape Internet access, the Internet would look like cable television: You get what you pay for. One Internet plan – we will call it ‘basic’ – could have users paying for access to  basic websites – Wikipedia, YouTube, etc. By paying slightly more, users could gain access to more “premium” content, things like Hulu and Facebook. The services can be tiered infinitely. ISPs could couple the models with bandwidth caps, which would limit the amount of random websurfing users could use. This chokes out competition and forces web-users to flock to the same websites, the complete antithesis of what the Internet has come to be.

That’s why I’m wiling to forgive Google’s corporate nature in this case. That the company is putting all of its strength behind an issue that has such wide-ranging repercussions is a major boon to supporters of the effort. While the merit of throttling peer-to-peer connections, which all the major Canadian ISPs have already admitted to be doing, is arguable, the danger in the practice, however, is that the chances of it leading to other things are too real to ignore. ISP interference in any form is invariably a gateway to more sinister things. Last week rumors sprung up over the RIAA’s utilization of Comcast and AT&T to monitor what files users were sharing. Neither Comcast nor AT&T has admitted to  colluding with the most evil organization in existence, likely because they are cognizant of the public relations nightmare that would ensure if such collusion were to be made public. Still, the example underscores the direction things could head if ISPs began monitoring and controlling Internet access rather than just providing it.

And that’s really the point, isn’t it? While the argument can certainly be made that it is the in best interests of ISPs to curb the activities busy porn and movie downloaders, the current methods reek too strongly of malign to be taken lightly. ISPs are in the business of giving customers access to the Internet, and once the get into the business of controlling that access, they are entering into a territory far harder for any of us to anticipate.

That’s the danger. The current efforts of Google and the other progenitors of M-lab are a sign that people want to nip the issue in the bud before it blooms in to a multi-headed cobra lilly of death. So, consider M-Lab a sort of super vinegar specially equipped to kill the strongest of weeds, and Google that portly garden exterminator willing to scratch your back if you scratch his.

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