Why 'open' isn't 'neutral'

Why 'open' isn't 'neutral'

Open for Business - Image: Flickr user Lens Envy

Thanks to Flickr user Lens Envy for the image

In the debate over U.S. Internet policy, the two terms are often confused...and confusing.

Related Resources

The Net Has Never Been Neutral (National Journal)
Author: Stewart Schley

One of the brain-twisting elements involved in the roiling debate over U.S. Internet regulation is the difference between two concepts that are central to the policy argument.

The first is the idea of an “open Internet” and the second is the much-used term “network neutrality.”

They’re not the same thing, but it’s easy to confuse the two. Example: a “primer” published by the Wall Street Journal mistakes one for the other in its opening explanation:

“Net neutrality is the principle that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally—broadband providers shouldn't be able to pick and choose which websites consumers can access,” writes Gautham Nagesh.

Except: not really. It’s true that net neutrality refers to the idea of equal treatment for all Internet traffic. But the second part of the sentence is misleading, we think. Net neutrality isn’t about allowing or disallowing websites and other content that flows over the Internet. Instead, what the writer is referring to here is the notion of an “open Internet.”

Sacred concept

Here’s what we mean: The “open Internet” is the fundamental approach to Internet governance, in which any content that doesn’t violate broader laws (think child pornography or illegal gambling) can find its way from a producer to a consumer over the constellation of IP-speaking networks we think of as the Internet. It’s an all-but sacred notion that – and here’s the important thing – almost nobody opposes. Internet service providers, content publishers, consumer advocacy organizations and regulators are on record as supporters of an open Internet.

Net neutrality, on the other hand, refers to the manner in which bitstreams flow over the Internet. (At least it does in our view, as it does in this crisply written definition from the University of California at Berkeley’s Open Computing Facility.) A truly neutral network would treat every bit the same as every other bit, meaning nothing is prioritized or accorded special treatment. The Netflix adaptive bitrate stream that delivers “House of Cards” to your Sony PS3, the digitized audio stream that constitutes the voice of your sibling over the telephone and the sequence of digital information that ultimately will produce an e-mail message over your Microsoft Outlook client would receive exactly the same treatment over the network. 

Of course, that’s not the way the Internet works. A wide variety of traffic prioritization schemes already prevail. The cable industry, for example, applies bitstream prioritization to voice calls that travel over IP-speaking last-mile access networks using a specification known as Packetcable. Netflix and many other providers of Internet video services engage third-party content delivery networks to bypass congested Internet paths by planting content in “edge” servers that reduce the round-trip time required for a video request to be fulfilled. 

Early reports (including this one from the WSJ) about FCC Chairman Wheeler’s proposal for new Internet regulations raised controversy over the notion that the commission would bless and permit these sorts of prioritization schemes, and certainly others. Although he didn’t specifically use the term, the popular press has interpreted this to mean that the Internet could become bifurcated into a set of “fast lanes” that perform better than the best-effort data transmission practices that otherwise shuttle bits to and from users.

Complicated issue

Net neutrality is tricky, because it introduces nettlesome “what ifs” that, rightly, trouble consumer advocates. For instance, what if a last-mile ISP arranges for bitstream prioritization with a social media application it happens to favor (or own outright), but refuses to make similar arrangements with a competitor? What if Comcast, which is poised to provide nearly 40% of U.S. fixed broadband Internet connections if its proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable happens, shifts its own IP video service, Xfinity Streampix, to a prioritized delivery lane, leaving Netflix in the dust? 

These are complicated questions that the FCC aims to grapple with as it considers a proposed rulemaking around new Internet regulations. But in evaluating the critical path forward for Internet regulation, it might help everyone’s cause if there’s a common understanding of the difference between traffic prioritization and outright blocking of online content. One is about being “neutral,” and the other one is about being is “open.” Knowing the difference helps inform the debate.