Slipping out of Neutral

Virtual Consumer column from Ethical Consumer magazine Jan-Feb 2011

The internet and the world wide web are not the same thing, although they are often confused. When Sir Tim Berners Lee invented the web, he created a language (hypertext transfer protocol or HTTP) that allows information held on remote ‘server’ computers to be displayed in a friendly format. Users can follow ‘hypertext’ links between information sources held on different computers quickly and without needing to know how or where the information was stored. The web presupposed the existence of the internet, which was already carrying electronic mail and other traffic much as it does to this day. Berners Lee relied on an important characteristic of the net – that it cares nothing about the content of the data. A metaphor that is frequently used for networks like this is a cloud – you can’t see what happens inside but you know that what is sent in one end comes out the other. Berners Lee could design his language, confident that it would be uncorrupted by the network. The network was neutral.

The same principle has allowed the development of other ‘protocols’ to carry TV pictures or telephone calls across the internet. Indeed, providing there is enough capacity in the network, it can carry any information that can be coded in 1’s and 0’s. And there lies the rub: providing there is sufficient capacity.

Information sent over the internet is chopped up into packets that will follow any available route to their intended destination. If a fault arises in one of the millions of links that make up the internet, the data simply follows an alternative route (this allowed John Gilmore to comment famously that “the net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”). However, routes can become crowded, and packets must queue up and take their turn, leading to the delays we have all experienced. Such delays can make a TV programme unwatchable, or a telephone conversation unintelligible.

As traffic increases, internet service providers (ISPs) must invest in new capacity if they are to keep these delays down. But if they have their own TV services or other content there is an attractive alternative: prioritize some content over others and let their own packets jump the queue. This breaks the principle of ‘net neutrality’: that the net ignores the content of packets and treats them all as equal. Some, including Sir Tim Berners Lee himself, argue that we must fight to retain this principle. In the words of the campaign group, “The free and open Internet brings with it the revolutionary possibility that any Internet site could have the reach of a TV or radio station. The loss of Net Neutrality would end this unparalleled opportunity for freedom of expression.”