Technology hero
28 May 2014

Neutral parties

When you sign up to an ISP you want access to the internet, not access to parts of it at varying speeds. So let's talk about net neutrality.

Let’s wander off-topic (the topic, if you’d forgotten, is access to media) and talk about the related issue of net neutrality.

magine that a bus company notices loads of people are getting off at a stop to go to a particular restaurant. The bus company goes to the restaurant owner and says “we’re bringing a lot of people to you, you should pay us a fee or we’ll move the bus stop further away, or worse, move it closer to another restaurant that will pay us.” This is what a non-neutral internet looks like, where the restaurant is a content provider and the bus company is your ISP.

In New Zealand we see this in two ways. The first is via deals, where some sites (eg TVNZ OnDemand) don’t count towards your data cap depending on the ISP. The other is “traffic shaping”: slowing traffic to some content distribution networks (CDNs) and prioritising others. There is also traffic shaping for peer-to-peer traffic (bit-torrent) on unlimited data plans.

When you sign up to an ISP you want access to the internet, not access to parts of it at varying speeds. Also this anti-neutral stance raises concern that only big players will get their content seen by others, stifling innovation on the net.

Naturally this is a touchy issue with ISPs and net users.

Earlier this week a number of internet users who had signed up to Netflix (via a service such as Unblock-Us) started complaining they could no longer access the video streaming site via Telecom. They accused Telecom of shaping the traffic or flat out blocking Netflix. Telecom rebutted every tweet:

UnoTelly, a smartDNS service like Unblock-Us, jumped on the Geekzone forums to list what its testing had found: “This isn't a conclusive list, nor is it complete, but this is our finding so far that we're hoping would help the ISPs while we continue to look into this from our end.”

I believe that the problem actually lies further “upstream” (with other providers) and possibly with Netflix itself. As I mentioned a little while ago: “… Netflix and Hulu have recently flexed their muscles and started blocking the locations that [smartDNS services] are using to access those sites. It’s a virtual game of ‘whack-a-mole’ though and the [smartDNS services] will set up new locations and pretty soon they’ll be working again.”

Questions will be asked of Telecom when it launches its streaming content service whether it is shaping traffic or otherwise disadvantaging competitors. Similarly other ISPs will be asked if they are slowing traffic to Telecom’s service. We need to make sure that barriers and gateways are not erected and that New Zealanders are always getting a fair and neutral internet.

If you’d like to know more about net neutrality, Boing Boing is a great place to start. Especially Vi Hart’s clever video (be warned, she talks rather fast).

Postscript: The problem appears to be the unintended consequence of a technical change by Netflix. If you have access to the NBR online there's also a good explanation here.

About the author:

Hadyn Green is a geek. He loves shiny new tech and the chance to try to break it. Because it's the kind of thing people ask, here is the tech Hadyn currently uses. Phone: iPhone 5s Tablet: iPad Air. Music player: Spotify. Headphones: Sony MDR-G55 (for walking because I hate earbuds) and Beats Studio noise-cancelling (for sitting at my desk and tuning out the world). E-Reader: Kindle Touch. Gaming: PS4, PS3, Xbox One and Xbox 360. Internet Service Provider: Snap.

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