Net neutrality is the idea that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Verizon and Comcast cannot discriminate against certain web traffic. In other words, ISPs can’t slow down traffic for companies that refuse to pay up.
Finally, proof has emerged that not only is such “Pay-to-Play Internet” a possibility, it’s already happening.
A recent study from research consortium M-Lab suggests that certain “eyeball network” ISPs (think Comcast or Time Warner Cable) are intentionally squeezing data from some incoming networks like Netflix to slow down service. And not only are customers (the “eyeballs”) of the incoming network receiving degraded service, but the effective “traffic jams” created are causing anyone else incidentally using the same route to get stuck, as well.
Cardozo law professor Susan Crawford described the current field of play in the Internet:
Comcast, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable are now powerful enough that they can demand that they be paid for connecting with other networks. Their power comes from their huge numbers of subscribers; other networks need Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon more than these eyeball networks need them. If the eyeball networks aren’t paid, they will refuse to upgrade the doors between their eyeballs and the network seeking to connect. If that upgrade doesn’t happen but the eyeballs keep asking for more and more data — because, say, they want to watch movies online from Netflix — packets get dropped. And if packets get dropped, hourglasses spin and screens freeze.
These payments are whatever the eyeball network asks for–usually masked as some sort of “upgrade” to handle increased traffic volume. But because the monopolistic eyeball networks are the only way for incoming networks to reach the “last mile” to consumers, they can effectively “invent fees and then assess them, and force everyone else in the system to pass those costs on to subscribers,” according to Crawford.
M-Lab’s research noted clearly observable incidents of network throttling during peak user times between 2013 and 2014–specifically for Cogent traffic. Cogent is the network with which Netflix was doing business for much of that time. Netflix competes with many of the eyeball networks for video entertainment customers, and has notoriously criticized providers like Comcast for alleged attempts to make the company pay up for faster service.
See where we’re going here? And not only did Netflix traffic effectively slow, but any other innocent bystander business using Cogent.
You can read more about the study here. As a country, we’ve been speaking about the loss of net neutrality as a potentially devastating consequence in the far future. Now, it seems clear: That threat is already here.