20-06-2022 | | By Robin Mitchell
As the EU pushes tech firms to pay for internet infrastructure upgrades, some fear it will encourage internet service providers to prioritise traffic from large tech companies, effectively ending net neutrality. What is net neutrality, why is it critical for a fair internet, and how could governments force tech companies to build infrastructure that potentially destroys net neutrality?
In the past few years, the concept of net neutrality has frequently received media attention, and whenever the topic comes up, large portions of the engineering community rally to support the idea. But what exactly is net neutrality, and how does it affect internet usage? Simply put, net neutrality is the idea that all internet traffic is equal and, as such, should be treated equally. This means that all data streamed across a network should be given identical priority no matter where it is from, its size, or its destination.
Of course, the quality of a connection will determine the maximum data rate, which is why datacentres often have better download and upload speeds compared to a privately hosted server. But this speed is dependent on physical characteristics and not some arbitrary software process that observes a data packet and then allocates resources based on its level of perceived importance.
One only has to look at large tech companies such as Google and Netflix to understand why net neutrality is so important for a fair global network. There is no doubt that the vast majority of internet bandwidth is used to stream video and content, and the providers of such services would love it if their data was given priority over other traffic. Viewers of such content would be able to have a steadier connection, greater download speeds, and reduced latency.
But just like the first rule of thermodynamics, bandwidth cannot be created or destroyed, which means that if one service is given preferential treatment, data packets from other services will suffer. Private servers will find that their connection quality to users across the internet would be hit with larger latencies and slower download rates. IoT devices not manufactured by large tech companies may struggle to transfer data, and those using network protocols such as UDP may find their packets never arrive (why bother blasting inefficient UDP messages from a single device if you can just ignore it in favour of a video stream).
If these examples are taken to their logical conclusion, it results in large tech companies controlling the flow of information, which can have a negative consequence on start-up businesses who may be reliant on high-speed internet connections for providing quality services. One of the beautiful concepts around net neutrality is that a data packet from Google will be on the same level as one from a small one-man-band garage business out in the middle of the countryside.
An analogy of net neutrality would be road networks. Anyone with a vehicle is free to use roads, and only vehicles looking to get onto a road give priority to those already on the network (just like how data packets wait until they can be transmitted).
But imagine driving down a road, and then a VIP driver pulls up who is legally allowed to remove you from the road for their own use (with the obvious exception of emergency vehicles, whose software parallel would-be system administrators looking to perform maintenance). Additionally, the sole reason for the VIP driver having this right comes from their wealth as they pay more taxes. Considering that such a system would cause justifiable outrage, net neutrality is something that all internet users should be concerned with.
The importance of the internet cannot be understated, and governments worldwide are now funding improvements in internet infrastructure. However, governments looking to improve internet infrastructure must be careful when finding funding sources, as the EU may soon find out.
Considering that large tech companies are the largest users of the internet infrastructure, the EU is potentially looking to place the cost burden of network improvements on these companies. While the EU does have net neutrality laws, it also stated that this mindset may be unsustainable looking into the future and thus could put net neutrality at risk. If large tech companies are expected to foot the price of improving internet infrastructure, it only makes sense that they have the right to dictate traffic priority as they have paid for the network.
It should also be considered that anyone with an internet connection already pays for the bandwidth they use. This means that large data centres already contribute funds to help construct new infrastructure, and it is up to internet service providers to raise prices across the board if bandwidth increases are required.
Governments worldwide should be cautious when dealing with net neutrality, and it is arguably better to raise taxes for all if more funds are needed to improve infrastructure. Targeting large companies simply because of their size will not only discourage investments but could also encourage such companies to form their own ISPs or other networks that will dissolve net neutrality.