FAQ: Net neutrality and internet traffic management

Advocates of net neutrality believe the internet should be kept open and free from interference or restrictions from service providers, and say certain users or applications should not be favoured over others.

Net neutrality — the lofty yet antiseptic term has been tossed around a lot lately.

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission and President Barack Obama support it. In Canada, the  federal Liberal party  and the  federal NDP   also publicly back it. 

It's been the topic of much discussion among internet service providers, consumer groups and companies that do business on the internet since a group of small internet service providers complained last year  to Canada's telecommunications regulator that the net isn't neutral, because some larger ISPs actively "manage" internet traffic. So far, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has allowed such practices to continue.

But the issue of net neutrality will be front and centre this week in the United States and Canada as the FCC is set to propose that existing principles should be enshrined as law, while the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission will announce its findings from extensive hearings held in the summer.

Here are answers to some questions you might have about "net neutrality" in the meantime.

What is net neutrality?

Definitions vary, but most advocates of neutrality agree it has evolved into the principle that the internet should be kept open and free from interference or restrictions from service providers. That is, certain users or applications should not be favoured over others.

What is traffic shaping?

Some ISPs have equipment that can detect what customers are using their connections for. They can tell how much e-mail a customer is sending and receiving, or if they are using their connection for online gaming. They can also tell whether customers are using peer-to-peer software, such as Skype or BitTorrent. Traffic shaping occurs when the ISP directs speeds — or bandwidth — to the different types of applications, thus making one, such as e-mail, faster while slowing another, such as BitTorrent.

Why do ISPs shape traffic?

ISPs say a small portion of their customers are clogging up the internet by using the majority of its bandwidth, which slows down everyone else's connections. Critics say ISPs do it to limit applications that threaten their own lines of business. Internet calling application Skype, for example, uses peer-to-peer technology to provide free phone calls and therefore competes with the phone services offered by many ISPs.

What is BitTorrent?

It is a protocol that runs over the internet, much like the World Wide Web. BitTorrent allows a website to offer a "seed" file for download. Each BitTorrent user who downloads that file then acts as a secondary host for it. That speeds subsequent downloads and splits the amount of bandwidth load between all users. BitTorrent's speed and efficient use of bandwidth have therefore made it popular among people who transfer large files, particularly movie pirates. The protocol is also gaining acceptance for legitimate uses — rock band Nine Inch Nails recently distributed part of its new album over BitTorrent for free, while the CBC did the same with its Next Great Prime Minister TV show.

What is throttling?

When a user buys an internet connection from an ISP, they buy an advertised download speed. That speed is a maximum that occurs under optimal conditions and in Canada is expected by users at most times. Throttling is when an ISP purposely lowers the speed of a user's internet connection.

What are bit caps?

Bit caps or download limits are the maximum amount of data that an ISP allows a user to download over the internet. They were popular in the early days of high-speed internet, when bandwidth was not as plentiful as it is today. As ISPs invested in network infrastructure and competed with each other, download limits were increased to the point where they were unlimited. Now, with broadband growth and competition between ISPs slowing, they are being reintroduced.

Is this happening in Canada?

Bell Canada and Rogers have admitted to traffic shaping. Bell has also admitted to throttling. Rogers has reintroduced bit caps.

What is tiered service?                                 

People or organizations operating websites pay internet service providers for hosting their material online. Just as customers can now choose different access speeds at different prices, under a tiered system content owners would also choose how fast their websites and other online data would be transmitted across the internet. Critics say such a system would allow ISPs to charge twice for the same service.

Why is this bad?

Advocates of net neutrality say a tiered system will favour bigger companies that can afford to pay ISPs for the faster speeds, which will give them an unfair advantage over smaller firms and individuals. This could prevent the next Google or Amazon from happening, since those companies started small but were able to experiment and grow on the internet without restrictions.

What is the state of net neutrality in Canada?

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission admits it has largely refrained from regulating retail internet services even though it has the power to do so under the Telecommunications Act. In late February 2008, the federal standing committee on Canadian heritage urged the CRTC to adopt net neutrality principles in order to prevent the CBC from competing at a disadvantage against the broadcast offerings of ISPs such as Rogers. However, in May 2009, the CRTC opted to exempt media from broadcasting regulations.

Meanwhile, small ISPs complained to the CRTC in April 2008 that their customers were being throttled by Bell, which rents wholesale network access to those ISPs. In November, the CRTC said the practice wasn't discriminatory and could continue, as Bell also throttles its own retail customers. However, it decided to open a new probe into the larger issue of internet traffic management, which was to include online consultations as well as hearings in July 2009.

What about elsewhere?

Most countries are watching the net neutrality unfold in the United States, where it is receiving serious government attention. In September 2009, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski — a net neutrality advocate — proposed turning four existing principles into law, and adding two new rules as well. That followed previous efforts to codify net neutrality as law. In February 2008, the U.S. Congress introduced the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008, which would ban discriminatory practices by ISPs and was referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Also in February, the Federal Communications Commission held hearings on the traffic-shaping practices of Comcast Corp., the country's largest ISP, which resulted in the company promising to cease its discriminatory actions by the end of 2008.