Net Neutrality Might Not Mean What You Think

Protecting—or dismantling—net neutrality may not mean what you think. As the topic becomes a greater part of the conversation, it’s important to understand the technical context of net neutrality. To do that, we need to start at the beginning with the origins of the Internet pairing policy.


“Net neutrality: the principle that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites.”


In this article, Grant Kirkwood, CTO of Unitas Global, recounts the history of net neutrality, and how that affects the politics around it today. Note: these are the thoughts of Grant Kirkwood, and does not represent the official position of Unitas Global.


The Internet is a connection of autonomous systems (such as a network like AT&T, Cogent, Level3, etc.) and each system has a unique autonomous system number that identifies it. For the Internet to work, everything on it should be able to access everything else, meaning every autonomous system has to know how to get to every other autonomous system.


Each autonomous system has blocks of IP addresses for which it is responsible, and it bounces those IPs to the other autonomous systems. This all comes together in a phone-book like system called a global routing table.


In the beginning of the Internet, there were only a few autonomous systems. Today, there are closer to 58,000 autonomous systems and 700,000 IT address in the global routing table. Border Gateway Patrol (BGP) runs the table: it serves as the arbiter and navigator for all information navigating the Internet.  


Here’s where net neutrality comes in.


In the spring of 2012, Comcast and Netflix started a heated public dispute. Comcast told Netflix they were no longer going to freely exchange traffic, as Comcast wanted their subscribers watching their cable TV offering and didn’t want to provide Netflix content to Comcast subscribers for free. Netflix countered by conveying that subscribers don’t need Comcast Internet service if they have no content they wish to stream, and Netflix supplies content that people want.


The debate begged the question of what is more important: the content or the users? Most autonomous systems on the Internet either have a lot of users or a lot of content. Both are necessary.


An organization known as the Global Peering Forum—a nonprofit entity seeking to “advance the business interests of individuals involved in peering and interconnection”—essentially facilitated the functioning of the Internet and sharing of information. They decided on the unwritten expectation that the Internet exchanged traffic openly.


Eventually Congress caught wind that the Global Peering Forum was controlling how information was shared online and intervened to create rules around it.


At the same time as Congress learned about the inner workings of net neutrality, Comcast and Netflix settled their dispute. The result? Netflix paid for access to Comcast users with the agreement that they would pay less than anyone else. In other words, this agreement gave Netflix the ability to pay to prioritize their traffic over any other traffic. Which allows them to crush their competition.


The Netflix arrangement was antithetical to what the Internet had been before. Critics of the arrangement are concerned that this kind of deal will kill off the innovation that happens on the Internet because the smaller companies can’t afford to pay to play. What is see on the Internet today is a factor of who has the most money, not who has the best product that the public wants to use.


When it comes to government regulation over the Internet, there are two camps:

  1. Anti-regulation: proponents of anti-regulation wish to leave it alone and let it work itself out naturally, which has worked so far.
  2. Pro-regulation: this camp says putting government regulation in place will keep the Internet from being pay-to-play. People who want the Internet to be open and free, people who want net neutrality, are in this camp.


What does the future bring? At present, the United States is largely the center of the Internet. Repealing net neutrality could negatively affect the innovation in the US and could shift the economic growth to international businesses.

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