Random stuff from Patrick Crispen

Crispen on Net Neutrality

Excerpted from The Internet Tourbus, 8 August 2006

Back in September 1981, Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn wrote that

The internet protocol treats each internet datagram as an independent entity unrelated to any other internet datagram. There are no connections or logical circuits (virtual or otherwise).

Source: http://www.ietf.org/rfc/rfc0791.txt

What does this mean in English? Well, in all deference to Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, the internet is neither like a dump truck nor like a series of tubes. Rather, the internet is a lot like the United States Interstate highway system with one major addition: there are weigh stations at every major junction.

Interstate 101

To travel from point A to point B on the United States Interstate Highway System, you get on the Interstate via an on-ramp and then head in a certain direction until you reach either a junction or your destination's off ramp. For example, if we want to get from my beloved hometown of Irvine, California, to Universal Studios in Hollywood, we'll take the following route:

[See http://tinyurl.com/jfgw3 ]

Now imagine if you had to make that same trip without anyone behind the wheel. You'd hop on I-405 north, put a brick on the gas pedal, and hope for the best ... much like the way I drive to work each morning. [If you are from the California Department of Motor Vehicles, the California Highway Patrol, or Mercury Insurance, I assure you that I am KIDDING! Please don't arrest me.] Actually, you wouldn't have to hope for the best because at each junction on our pretend Interstate there is a weigh station where each vehicle pulls over, is inspected, and then is automatically put back on the Interstate headed in the right direction [or at least in the direction that has the least amount of traffic.]

So, in reality [or at least in augmented reality], our trip from Irvine to Hollywood will be a little more like:

On a really long trip, our car could pass through dozens or even hundreds of weigh stations before it reached its final destination. On a cross-country trip, some of these weigh stations may be owned by California, some by Arizona, some by New Mexico, and so on.

By the way, what are the weigh stations inspecting for? They really only care to see that your car isn't missing a wheel or two and that your car knows its final destination. The weigh stations don't care one bit, though, about what is inside of your car [as long as what's inside of your car isn't damaged beyond all recognition] or who owns your car. In the eyes of the weigh stations, Patrick Crispen's car, Bill Gates' car, and the Popemobile and absolutely identical.

Got it? Now, let's apply this analogy to the internet.

Internet 101

To send an email or a web page or any sort of information from point A to point B on the internet, you connect to the internet through an Internet Service Provider [an "on ramp."] The Internet Service Provider puts the text of your email into an internet packet called a datagram [a "car"] and pushes the datagram onto the internet [the "Interstate"] in the correct direction. At the first network junction your datagram encounters, the datagram is pulled of the internet by a router [a "weigh station,"] and inspected. The router doesn't care what your datagram contains or who sent it. It only checks to see that your datagram isn't broken or improperly addressed. If your datagram passes inspection, it is placed back on the internet headed either in the right direction or in the direction that has the least traffic. At the next router, the process repeats itself. Yadda yadda yadda.

Your datagram passes through dozens of routers along the way, each potentially owned by different companies. Eventually, though, your datagram makes it to its final destination, usually within a few seconds of your sending it. [Did I mention your "car" was fast?]

You can actually see the whole routing process happen right before your eyes. Just point your web browser to http://visualroute.visualware.com/

You have to have Sun's free Java tool to be able to use this, but if you type in a web address in the Enter Host/URL box and then click on Start Trace, you'll see the route your datagram[s] takes as it goes from your computer to the final destination. If you are in the United States, try a trace to the Vatican at www.vatican.va just for grins.

Old School Traceroute

By the way, if you don't have Java, you can still run a text-based traceroute on your PC or Mac [if your firewall will let you.] In Windows 95, 98, 98 SE or ME,

  1. Go to Start > Programs > DOS Prompt
  2. Type TRACERT WWW.VATICAN.VA and then press the Enter key on your keyboard
  3. Close the window when you are finished

In Windows 2000 or XP,

  1. Go to Start > Run
  2. In the Open: box key in CMD and click the OK button
  3. Type TRACERT WWW.VATICAN.VA and then press the Enter key on your keyboard
  4. Behold the magic that is traceroute
  5. Close the window when you are finished

In MacOS X

  1. Open Hard Drive > Applications > Utilities > Terminal. [You can also use the Network Utility program instead.]
  2. Type TRACEROUTE WWW.VATICAN.VA and then press the Enter key on your keyboard

Neat, huh?

A Drop In

All this leads up to a pretty significant "problem." Before we get to that, though, I need to drop in one more point.

The Interstate is [for the most part] tax supported. Americans pay taxes on every gallon of gas they purchase and they also pay state and federal payroll taxes. A [insert your favorite pejorative adjective here] portion of all of this tax revenue is used to [insert your favorite pejorative adverb here] maintain the Interstate Highway System. You usually don't have to pay to use the Interstate because your tax dollars already paid for your use. [Of course, there are always exceptions like toll roads -- see http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/programadmin/toll_Rds.html ]

The internet is a little different. While the internet began its life as a US Department of Defense research project, and while the telecommunications companies that maintain the internet backbone have received hundreds of billions of dollars in tax credits and disbursements, the internet is not really tax supported. Instead, you and I pay to connect to the internet. And so does Microsoft and Google and the Vatican and everyone else. The only difference is that consumers usually pay a flat monthly fee while businesses and organizations pay an escalating fee based on the amount of traffic they generate. In other words, Google's monthly internet bill is probably a bit larger than your monthly internet bill ... or lifetime earning potential.

The Problem

Earlier we saw a quote from Cerf and Kahn that said that

The internet protocol treats each internet datagram as an independent entity unrelated to any other internet datagram. There are no connections or logical circuits (virtual or otherwise).

That first sentence is the cornerstone of what is called "net neutrality." Each datagram that goes over the internet is treated the same.

Now for the problem. The telecommunications companies -- the companies who run the routers in the middle of the path your datagrams take across the internet -- have signaled their interest to no longer treat each internet datagram as an independent entity. Instead, the telecommunications companies may be interested in knowing what is inside of each datagram and then either charging more for or slowing down datagrams that contain certain types of content such as video streams, voice over internet protocol telephone calls, and so on.

As you can imagine, this has created a huge debate both online and in the halls of the United States Congress. You can read more about the debate at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Net_neutrality

The question before Congress is should net neutrality -- the current state of affairs where all internet datagrams are treated the same -- become the law of land. Right now net neutrality is more of a "gentlemen's agreement." Proponents of network neutrality regulations include the AARP, Amazon, American Library Association, Earthlink, Ebay, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. Opponents of network neutrality regulations include the Bell telephone and cable companies. [Source: Wikipedia]

Felten on Net Neutrality

The whole long article has been both a primer and a run up for this last part. I want to put in a plug for Edward Felten's "Nuts and Bolts of Network Neutrality" paper at http://itpolicy.princeton.edu/pub/neutrality.pdf. This 10 page Adobe Acrobat document is completely free.

Felten is a Professor of Computer Science and Public Affairs at Princeton University, and his "Nuts and Bolts" paper [combined with my internet 101 tutorial in today's post] should give you a much clearer understanding of the net neutrality debate ... and why it's not as cut and dry as you might think. In fact, Felten makes a strong argument that both sides of the net neutrality debate are wrong.

Anyway, my goal today was to give you a better understanding of the whole net neutrality debate so that you can make your own decision. Be looking for the media to focus a great deal of attention on this issue in the weeks and months to come.

Copyright © 2014 Patrick Crispen. Contents licensed to the public under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license. All other rights reserved.