While many of us were discussing Comcast’s partial blocking of BitTorrent Traffic, and debating its implications for the net neutrality debate, a more clear-cut neutrality violation was apparently taking place on Verizon’s network – a redirection of Verizon customers’ failed DNS lookups, to drive traffic to Verizon’s own search engine.
Here’s the background. Suppose you’re browsing the web and you mistype an address – say you type “fredom-to-tinker”. Your browser will try to use DNS, the system that maps textual machine names to numeric IP addresses, to translate the name you typed into an address it can actually connect to across the Net. DNS will return an error, saying that the requested name doesn’t exist. Your browser (if it’s a recent version of IE or Firefox) will respond by doing a search for the text you typed, using your default search engine.
What Verizon did is to change how DNS works (for their residential subscribers) so that when a customer’s computer looks up a DNS name that doesn’t exist, rather than returning the name-doesn’t-exist error DNS says that the (non-existent) name maps to Verizon’s search site. This causes the browser to go to the Verizon search site, which shows the user search results (and ads) related to what they typed.
(This is the same trick used by VeriSign’s ill-fated SiteFinder service a few years ago.)
This is a clear violation of net neutrality: Verizon is interfering with the behavior of the DNS protocol, in order to drive traffic to its own search site. And unlike the Comcast scenario which might possibly have been justifiable as legitimate network management, in this case Verizon cannot claim to be helping its network run more smoothly.
Verizon’s actions have two effects. The obvious effect is to drive traffic from the search engines users chose to Verizon’s own search engine. That harms users (by overriding their choices) and harms browser vendors (by degrading their users’ experiences).
The less obvious effect is to break some other applications. DNS lookups that have nothing to do with browsing will still be redirected, because the DNS infrastructure has no way of knowing which requests relate to browsing and which don’t. So if some other application does a DNS lookup and the result should be a not-found error, Verizon will cause the result to point to a Verizon server instead. If a non-browser program expects to see not-found errors sometimes and has a strategy for dealing with them, it won’t be able to carry out that strategy because it won’t see the errors it should be seeing. This will even cause browsers to misbehave in some circumstances.
The effects of Verizon’s neutrality violation can be summarized simply: they interfer with a standard technical protocol; they cause harm on the whole, in part by breaking unrelated services; and they do this in order to override consumer choice by shifting traffic from consumer-chosen services to Verizon’s own services. This is pretty much the definition of a net neutrality violation.
This example contradicts at least two of the standard arguments against net neutrality regulation. First, it shows that violations do happen, and they do cause harm. Second, it shows that at least sometimes it’s easy to tell a harmful violation apart from legitimate network management.
But it doesn’t defeat all of the arguments against net neutrality regulation. Even though violations do occur, and do cause harm, it might turn out that the regulatory cure is worse than the disease.