If news articles about net neutrality leave you feeling lost, you’re not alone. The Wikipedia Talk pages show that it’s a difficult topic to define, let alone debate. (More)

WikiWars Part III: Net Neutrality (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature considers the public but often-overlooked WikiWars behind controversial Wikipedia articles. Thursday we began with users competing to frame the Ukraine Crisis. Yesterday we turned to the behind-the-scenes battles over climate change. Today we conclude with struggles to describe net neutrality.

“Good. Then you probably did understand it.”

I try to avoid debates about net neutrality. I kinda-sorta get that it’s about whether broadband companies and other Internet Service Providers can block, delay, or charge extra for some kinds of data or data from some sources. As a broad principle, I agree that your ISP shouldn’t be able to nudge you toward or away from certain internet sources and activities, just as phone companies can’t charge extra for calls to businesses that don’t advertise in the Yellow Pages.

At least I think that’s what net neutrality is about. The lead paragraphs of the Wikipedia entry on net neutrality describes it thus:

Net neutrality (also network neutrality or Internet neutrality) is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication. The term was coined by Columbia media law professor Tim Wu.

The term “net neutrality” is vague and confusing to many. Another accepted description is “open internet” where you can use your internet connection for anything you wish at no additional charge and with no restrictions – this would be a net neutral environment. A “closed internet” refers to a situation where corporations can restrict what you see over an internet connection and charge for it.

The lead goes on to summarize the arguments of net neutrality proponents and opponents. But if you’re already lost, or wondering “but what about?” … you’re hardly alone, as the entry’s Talk Page reveals:

I actually feel like I know less about network neutrality after having read this intro.

Good. Then you probably did understand it.

“Random vloggers aren’t reliable sources”

The net neutrality page once included this video, which one editor thought a good explanation:

But other editors deleted the video, and its removal prompted this exchange:

I was wondering why you removed the video? I think that there should be as many videos, links, articles, everything as possible, on all types of content, that allows people to experience and read and watch and listen about how there are people out there who are trying to limit not only select peoples rights, but for the whole internets rights. Where does it stop, or end? I’ve grown up in a society where the internet was always available. I Truly think that the internet is the model group of intellects. Where else in the world can every person stand up and speak what her or she believes in?[…]

Wikipedia is not a soapbox and random vloggers aren’t reliable sources.

Fair enough. A video with the provocative title “Humanity Lobotomy” probably also fails Wikipedia’s neutral point of view requirement. I’m also not sure the video gets me any closer to really understanding the topic.

“What ‘treating packets equally’ means”

One editor proposed the “simple” definition of net neutrality as “treating all packets equally.” But as another editor replied, that has never been the case:

The edit raises the questions of what ‘treating packets equally’ means. For example, some definitions, such as TBL’s definition permits prioritisation of some traffic; so not all traffic is truly equal.
[…]
I tried to clarify the definition a little (by correcting faulty parallelism), and also said that NN is a principle proposed for networks, rather than that NN is a principle (since the latter suggests that it’s an established principle, which I think some will still dispute). What’s not clear to me is whether avoiding degradation of some streams by others is part of network neutrality or rather an objection that carriers had raised against net neutrality. Guidance welcome.

Umm. I think I got that. Maybe.

No, no. One of the central concerns of non neutral networks would be if they prioritise other traffic to a degree that almost, but not quite, no traffic flowed. That’s frequently indistinguishable from poor service by the far end website or service provider. And this does happen. The network I’m on right now drastically reduces the priority of most peer-peer networks at peak times. But my provider is very open about how they prioritise and there’s other providers you can choose here, so it’s not a monopoly. Some other service providers may do it, and not tell you.

Peer-to-peer networks are used primarily by instant messaging, online chats, and file sharing applications. Some file-sharing applications may violate copyright laws, and most use more bandwidth than web browsing, email, and other common online activities. Net neutrality opponents say ISPs should be able to bump peer-to-peer packets to a lower priority during heavy traffic periods.

“Our commitment to that principle … remains as strong as ever.”

Reporters are also often baffled. In 2008, the Wall Street Journal published a story that said Google wanted “a fast lane for its own content,” in violation of net neutrality. But Google quickly disagreed:

Broadband providers – the on-ramps to the Internet – should not be allowed to prioritize traffic based on the source, ownership or destination of the content. As I noted in that post, broadband providers should have the flexibility to employ network upgrades, such as edge caching. However, they shouldn’t be able to leverage their unilateral control over consumers’ broadband connections to hamper user choice, competition, and innovation. Our commitment to that principle of net neutrality remains as strong as ever.

“Edge caching” means storing copies of frequently-accessed data nearer the most frequent users, so they don’t need as many internet hops to access it. Basically, Google was offering to upgrade ISPs’ capacity by installing servers with Google-cached data at those ISPs facilities. But the agreements were non-exclusive and other content providers could also install edge caching servers with those same ISPs … if the other content providers wanted to pay for it.

Does that violate “net neutrality?” I still don’t know. I’m also not sure how I feel about ISPs throttling bandwidth-heavy packets during peak hours. I don’t want a government – or a corporation – picking and choosing what I can see and do online, with obvious exceptions like banning child pornography and other illegal activity.

But I understand that bandwidth is still a limited resource, and I would rather see a page load slowly than have my ISP crash from a system overload. And after reading the Talk pages on net neutrality, I no longer feel like an idiot for not understanding why that is such a challenging technical problem … with obvious political implications.

WikiWars have serious stakes, but they can also be as informative as the Wikipedia entries themselves, and their transparency is part of what makes Wikipedia work.

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Happy Saturday!