There’s been a lot of buzz today about this Wall Street Journal article that reports on the shifting positions of some of the leading figures of the network neutrality movement. Specifically, it claims that Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! have abandoned their prior commitment to network neutrality. It also claims that Larry Lessig has “softened” his support for network neutrality, and it implies that because Lessig is an Obama advisor, that Lessig’s changing stance may portend a similar shift in the president-elect views, which would obviously be a big deal.
Unfortunately, the Journal seems to be confused about the contours of the network neutrality debate, and in the process it has mis-described the positions of at least two of the key players in the debate, Google and Lessig. Both were quick to clarify that their views have not changed.
At the heart of the dispute is a question I addressed in my recent Cato paper on network neutrality: do content delivery networks (CDNs) violate network neutrality? A CDN is a group of servers that improve website performance by storing content closer to the end user. The most famous is Akamai, which has servers distributed around the world and which sells its capacity to a wide variety of large website providers. When a user requests content from the website of a company that uses Akamai’s service, the user’s browser may be automatically re-directed to the nearest Akamai server. The result is faster load times for the user and reduced load on the original web server. Does this violate network neutrality? If you’ll forgive me for quoting myself, here’s how I addressed the question in my paper:
To understand how Akamai manages this feat, it’s helpful to know a bit more about what happens under the hood when a user loads a document from the Web. The Web browser must first translate the domain name (e.g., “cato.org”) into a corresponding IP address (220.127.116.11). It does this by querying a special computer called a domain name system (DNS) server. Only after the DNS server replies with the right IP address can the Web browser submit a request for the document. The process for accessing content via Akamai is the same except for one small difference: Akamai has special DNS servers that return the IP addresses of different Akamai Web servers depending on the user’s location and the load on nearby servers. The “intelligence” of Akamai’s network resides in these DNS servers.
Because this is done automatically, it may seem to users like “the network” is engaging in intelligent traffic management. But from a network router’s perspective, a DNS server is just another endpoint. No special modifications are needed to the routers at the core of the Internet to get Akamai to work, and Akamai’s design is certainly consistent with the end-to-end principle.
The success of Akamai has prompted some of the Internet’s largest firms to build CDN-style networks of their own. Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have already started building networks of large data centers around the country (and the world) to ensure there is always a server close to each end user’s location. The next step is to sign deals to place servers within the networks of individual residential ISPs. This is a win-win-win scenario: customers get even faster response times, and both Google and the residential ISP save money on bandwidth.
The Journal apparently got wind of this arrangement and interpreted it as a violation of network neutrality. But this is a misunderstanding of what network neutrality is and how CDNs work. Network neutrality is a technical principle about the configuration of Internet routers. It’s not about the business decisions of network owners. So if Google signs an agreement with a major ISP to get its content to customers more quickly, that doesn’t necessarily mean that a network neutrality violation has occurred. Rather, we have to look at how the speed-up was accomplished. If, for example, it was accomplished by upgrading the network between the ISP and Google, network neutrality advocates would have no reason to object. In contrast, if the ISP accomplished by re-configuring its routers to route Google’s packets in preference to those from other sources, that would be a violation of network neutrality.
The Journal article had relatively few details about the deal Google is supposedly negotiating with residential ISPs, so it’s hard to say for sure which category it’s in. But what little description the Journal does give us—that the agreement would “place Google servers directly within the network of the service providers”—suggests that the agreement would not violate network neutrality. And indeed, over on its public policy blog, Google denies that its “edge caching” network violates network neutrality and reiterates its support for a neutral Internet. Don’t believe everything you read in the papers.