So Comcast made a deal with Netflix to improve streaming speed and everybody freaked the fuck out about how it’s the end of net neutrality.
Let me walk you off the ledge here – no, it isn’t.
Now let get a couple of important points out of the way –
- Net neutrality is an immensely important issue that is under real and serious attack.
- Comcast is a fucking evil company and we should resurrect the decomposing body of Theodore Roosevelt so that zombie Teddy can trust bust their ass with his big stick.
That being said, this deal has very little to do with net neutrality, and maybe more importantly, it changes nothing in the way the internet operates, the only difference is that this time, the negotiation was done in public and that consumers felt its impact much more profoundly.
Before everything we must understand what net neutrality means, in simple terms, it means that internet providers cannot discriminate against specific website or services, meaning that data that comes from youtube are treated just as well as data that comes from my PigmyGoatPorn.edu site. But it doesn’t mean that bandwidth is free. Sure, if you run a shitty little blog that no one reads about you adventures in China you can get it for free, but anyone that ever hosted anything even remotely popular knows that mo bandwidth, mo money. And for good reason too, while the cables themselves can be considered for pretty much all intents and purposes to have an unlimited capacity, the actual computers that route that information cost money, so does the electricity that power them, the buildings that house them and the people that maintain them, and the more bandwidth you have, the more of all of these you need.
Netflix had paid money, a lot of it, to an internet provider called Cognet to get that bandwidth, the problem is that Cognet couldn’t provide them the bandwidth and performance they wanted, so they instead decided to pay for Comcast. This is more similar to a small site getting overwhelmed by traffic after getting posted on reddit and going viral than evil Comcast intentionally sabotaging Netflix.
Wait you might ask, if that’s the case, how come this only affected Comcast users, what gives?
Ugh, good question, and I was hoping you wouldn’t notice it since answering it requires us to delve into the most boring part of the internet – IXPs and peering. No, it’s not really complicated, just a bit dry, but if you really want to understand stuff like net neutrality (and you should, this is, as Diamond Joe Biden would say, “a big fucking deal”), you need to understand how the internet really work. So buckle up, it’s going to get technical in this bitch, I’ll try to spice up with dick jokes.
We often think of the internet as one giant network (at least some of us do), but that’s not really the case, the internet is made up of many networks run by many (mostly private) compantaies. In order for computers to communicate with each other (which is the essence of the internet) they need to be connected, usually by physical cables. Now a company can make sure all of its computers are connected (luckily, they don’t need to be connected directly, but a route must exists between them all) but how do those networks connect to each other?
Enter the Internet Exchange Point or IXP (sometime known as public peering), it’s a giant switchboard that many networks (usually ISPs) connect to and exchange internet traffic. Think of it as an orgy, only instead of transmitting STDs they’re transmitting videos of porn stars getting STDs. IXPs are generally regional and they are connected in a super fast and big network that is known as the internet backbone that is operated by a handful of giant telecom companies.
That system works really well for most companies, but Netflix isn’t most companies, Netflix account for about a third of nightly home traffic in the US, and like most big content providers, IXPs just don’t scale all that well for them. To get around that companies get a special dedicated “pipes” to other networks, where the unwashed masses of the IXP cannot interfere, and it’s called private peering.
In private peering, a network is directly connected to another, and like everywhere in the internet, if you use bandwidth of that network, you need to pay for it. Now Netflix didn’t actually do any of that themselves, they paid the aforementioned Cognet to do so. Cognet is a giant company, one of the most important telecoms in the world, you probably never heard of them since they manage large networks and don’t really deal with home users, and big part of their business is signing peering agreements with ISPs to make sure their clients get great network performance. Now, when two big networks are connecting to each other, instead of billing each other for the bandwidth they use, they often engage in settlement-free peering - effectively giving each other their bandwidth for free, like two people at a bar buying rounds of shots for each other, it kinda tend to even up at the end and generally not worth the hassle of detailed bookkeeping. This is a voluntary agreement, and no one, including net neutrality advocates like myself or the EFF (yeah, me and the EFF, totally same level) suggests that all ISPs should provide free private peering for everyone or anyone. The issue with Netflix is that it has a very asymmetrical bandwidth usage, much more data is streamed from their servers to Comcast users (e.g. the video of the overrated House Of Cards) than from Comcast users to Netflix servers (e.g. the search query for the overrated House of Cards), and like a dude who was buying a round of shots after a round of shots, Comcast eventually said enough (much like you should’ve said enough to the overrated House of Cards and watch Orange is The New Black instead; that hot redhead from that 70s show is a prison lesbian dammit, what is wrong you?).
Okay, they only sort of said enough, they didn’t cut off their peering agreement (what is known as depeering, and it’s something that happened in the past many times) they said “fuck it, this deal is not working for us, we’re not adding any more capacity to handle your network”, and as Netflix usage grew, the performance went down.
What happened today is that Netflix decided to drop Cognet (not completely, just their part of their peering service) and pay Comcast for that peering, this is part of what network nerds call “buying transit” – and this is not new, they have been paying for transit yesterday, today they just paid for better content delivery. Not to mention that pretty much everyone do it, youtube do it, amazon do it, facebook do it, when you pay for you ISP you do it, when your ISP pay for an IXP they do it, when an IXP connect to the backbone they do it, even educated fleas that run a flea porn sites do it, the norm is to pay for bandwidth, you may not like it, but this is how the internet operates ever since it stopped being a government program, today’s deal literally change nothing.
With all that being said, while that deal itself seem pretty damn benign, it still a good idea to point some of the real issues it brings to the front -
- While there is no evidence of abuse and discrimination in that deal, the consolidation of the telecom market increase the chance such things will happen in the future - Comcast has its own streaming service and there is no regulation that force them to provide similar deal to Netflix is it does to its own offerings.
- Netflix, by the virtue of having a lot of money can negotiate a deal that a small startup company probably can’t.
But again, this is nothing new, the internet always worked liked this.
So what can be done?
You can do nothing, just let the market work as it wants, laissez-faire fans would argue that it would yield the best results, personally I think it will lead to the big players getting bigger and consolidating into a true monopoly that will end up hurting consumers (even more than the US’s shitty ISPs do).
You can try and regulate these companies, limiting their size (and thus bargaining power) and mandating fair and equal deals. Probably the most important thing here is to disallow ISP from being content providers.
But if you ask me, it’s time we start treating the internet like a utility and provide it publicly, yeah, people might shout SOCIALISM! but if the government can deliver mail and not turn into a communist hellscape, it can do it for email.