Traffic Shaping and Net Neutrality: Good Versus Evil

Brian Boyko, editor of Network Performance Daily, has written one the better and more thoughtful essays on net neutrality:

See, at the core of Network Neutrality issues are appliances or programs which conduct traffic shaping. In traffic shaping, some packets are prioritized, others are held back. This prioritization can be done on the basis of content (what type of data is being transferred,) on the basis of application (what program is transferring the data) or on the basis of IP address (which computer is sending the packet, and which computer is receiving it.)

Now, here’s the rub: Traffic shaping can help improve network performance, decrease latency, and increase bandwidth by delaying those packets deemed to be of a low priority. Sounds good, right?

Not so fast. Traffic shaping can degrade network performance, increase latency, and decrease bandwidth… by the same means.

The arguments for increased regulation of Internet access boil down to the claim that carriers are bad people who can’t be trusted with such an important job as managing Internet traffic; and we know they’re bad people because they routinely lie to us, suppress viewpoints, and cooperate with the government. Yet one could easily make the same charges against the very advocates of net neutrality regulations, and make a strong case that they too are bad people and bad corporate actors. Google and have misbehaved around the Susan Collins ad, and advocates who equate TCP Resets with identity theft are being less than honest.

So you can’t ultimately resolve this issue by identifying the good people and standing with them. There are good and bad people on both sides, so it’s the specific behavior that matters, and how much blind faith you have in telecom regulators to envision the potential of the Internet. And that’s where I have to part company with the pro-regulation crowd, because I’ve never met a regulator who was a man (or woman) of vision; typically, they’re small-minded and vindictive.

Somebody always ends up managing the traffic on a network. If the carriers are forbidden from doing it, the job will ultimately end up in the hands of the largest users of bandwidth, the Googles and Yahoos of the world. And when you put them in control of a cable plant they didn’t have to pay for, do you really suppose they’re going to run it in anybody’s interest but their own?

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