In late February, in a big victory for Net neutrality advocates, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted to reclassify broadband Internet as a telecommunications service subject to regulations like those used in the telephone industry. AT&T, Verizon, and other opponents of reclassification argued, unsuccessfully, that phone networks are a poor analogy for understanding the Internet. But what is the right analogy? Internet access is a complex tangle of technical, political, and commercial issues, and people have long tried to make it comprehensible through comparisons to other, more familiar systems. As a result, Net neutrality analogies have also become a powerful and effective rhetorical tool for rallying political action.
It goes without saying that the development of the Internet and the economy it supports has had an unprecedented global impact. But “unprecedented” means that nothing in history adequately prepared us to determine who should be paying whom and for what, exactly, in a world ruled by packets. Here’s a quick reminder that some of the very things that make the Internet unique are precisely those that make it resistant to comparisons.
• The FCC justified its latest decision by noting that when customers pay an Internet provider, they’re primarily purchasing the ability to transmit (and receive) packets of data, just as customers pay phone companies to transmit and receive phone calls.
• That’s a reversal from 2002, when the FCC said that wired Internet access is an information service, more like websites and cable TV. AT&T has argued that Internet service providers (ISPs) obviously do more than just transmit data; if they didn’t provide a “computing functionality,” paid prioritization, blocking, or throttling bandwidth wouldn’t even be possible.
• It’s also common for people to compare Internet data to water flowing through pipes or electricity flowing through the power grid. Internet law expert Lawrence Lessig, for one, has compared a nonneutral Internet to an electrical outlet that provides electricity with different prices, quality, and reliability depending on the brand of appliance you plug in.
• Ever since U.S. vice president Al Gore popularized the term “information superhighway” in the 1990s, the analogy of traffic on a multilane road has been ubiquitous. Over the past few years, the Net neutrality debate has largely focused on paid prioritization, the idea that ISPs could charge content providers for a higher level of service. Some opponents said this was like adding tollbooths to previously free roads. The ISPs argued that paid prioritization was the equivalent of adding new, fast lanes alongside the existing lanes; other opponents shot back that ISPs were more likely to add speed bumps to some of the old lanes and relabel the remaining lanes “fast.”
Why the Analogies Fall Short
• It’s privately owned infrastructure: Unlike U.S. highways, which are built and maintained by the government, fiber connections are usually laid and managed by private companies. Initial deployment is usually expensive, so the companies expect to profit by collecting recurring fees over time. When private companies do build private roads, tollbooths are common.
• It’s not a single-purpose network: In a phone system, a call is a call, and the network is optimized for call quality. Similarly, cable TV infrastructure was purpose-built for delivering television channels. The beauty of the Internet Protocol, on the other hand, is in its ability to support a multitude of services. But one limitation is that the protocol itself doesn’t guarantee timely delivery, and not all data streams are equally tolerant of delays. For e-mail or Web browsing, tiny delays in packet delivery have little impact, but when you’re making a two-way voice call or playing an online game, even small amounts of latency can ruin the experience.
• There’s no such thing as generic data: When you turn on your tap or plug in an appliance, all you really want is water or power. Where that water or power originated is irrelevant; once it’s in the pipes or wires, it’s all the same stuff. The Internet doesn’t work that way. When consumers pay an ISP, they’re purchasing the ability to access any specific content that they choose, not just the data that’s convenient for the ISP to provide.
• There are bottlenecks at interconnects: When Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu first defined Net neutrality, he was arguing that network providers should not be allowed to discriminate against any of the bits flowing through their network. But what if the slowdown occurs outside of an ISP’s network? When Netflix was battling with Comcast and Verizon over streaming-video speeds, the real issue revolved around who should foot the bill for upgrading the interconnects at the boundaries between those last-mile ISPs and the intermediate ISPs that Netflix paid to deliver its traffic. A better highway analogy might involve the financing of new on-ramps, rather than the arbitrary construction of tollbooths.
• Traffic is two-way: Many metaphors focus on content delivery. But on the Internet, of course, you’re not just consuming packets, you’re also sending them. Except for minimal interactivity (for example, on-demand movies) television is a one-way medium. Water and electricity are similarly services that are consumed (unless you’re feeding solar power back onto the grid).
• There’s a history of peering arrangements: In fact, the general business structure of the Internet was based on the idea that when customers on one network need to send data to customers on another network of similar size, it makes sense for those networks to exchange packets without charging each other, a practice known as “peering.” Smaller networks paid to get access to larger networks, and at the top of the food chain were backbone providers, which found that it was mutually beneficial to exchange and deliver each other’s packets without cost. With the rise of online video in particular, traffic has become much more asymmetric, undermining the historic definition of peers. It is difficult to work the concept of paid or nonpaid peering into a highway or utility metaphor.
• Routing packets isn’t like routing money: Water and power companies charge based on consumption (in addition to connection fees), so that the more you use, the more you pay. And with a cable subscription, you’re paying a flat rate for both the content itself and the transmission infrastructure that delivers it to your TV. Neither billing structure is suitable for the Internet, where nothing is actually consumed. Customers pay content providers for content and ISPs for access to that content. Companies in each business want to capture as much total revenue as possible while keeping their costs to a minimum. As Internet pioneer David D. Clark noted a couple of decades ago, “you cannot derive money flow from packet flow,” so we can expect this battle of competing economic interests to continue for years to come.
This article originally appeared in print as “Why Net Neutrality Analogies Will Always Fail.”
Joshua is a freelance journalist who writes about emerging technology, physical science, and global development issues. Formerly IEEE Spectrum’s senior interactive editor, Josh helped create the current website, shot and produced dozens of videos, and coordinated data-driven projects. He holds a bachelor’s degree in astronomy and physics from the University of Arizona and a master’s in journalism from New York University.