Neutrality a bigger issue than you think

Net neutrality.

It’s a term that you might have heard, but the definition probably isn’t clear. Even to those who debate the issue, the subject material is vast and the implications are many.

Net neutrality refers to Internet providers offering their services without any sort of restriction that limits access.  With Level 3 Communications’ new spat with Comcast Corporation over the delivery of Netflix content, it’s about time that everyone became aware of the issue at hand.

Netflix, the online subscription-based video service, has practically taken over the market. The term “juggernaut” is actually an understatement when describing the company, which has expanded to deliver content through a plethora of platforms (televisions, computers, iPhones and iPads, Xbox 360s and Nintendo Wiis — and the list goes on), eventually reaching more than 9 million customers in 2008.

This has made it necessary for Netflix to find bigger, better content delivery networks. After all, you can’t hold up 17 percent of all Internet traffic without a powerful, flexible network.

And so Netflix has given Level 3 Communications most of the delivery job (though others, such as Akamai and Limelight, will pitch in).

But that’s not where this story ends. In turn, Level 3 must deal with cable companies — in this case, Comcast — to get the content onto the screens of Weeds-deprived users all over the country.

This is where things have currently come to a head, and it all goes back to that magical number: 17 percent.

Comcast claims that as part of the new agreement, it will be receiving five times more traffic from Level 3 than before, requiring it to charge Level 3 an extra fee outside of its normal peering contract.

Otherwise, Comcast has stated, it will need to pass on the greater costs brought on by the new network stress onto itself and cable customers. Level 3, however, is saying that Comcast forcing them to pay such a fee is against the principles of net neutrality.

Put simply, net neutrality is a term describing the condition in which user access networks (in this scenario, Comcast Cable) do not put restrictions on the sort of content, sites, platforms, attached equipment or modes of communications that is to be on the network.

“Restrictions” can mean discriminatory fees levied against certain types of content (say, Netflix) and not others.

Comcast has countered this argument by pointing out that it has held commercial contracts (where there is a fee, unlike in a peering arrangement/contract) with some of Level 3’s competitors and that Level 3 is merely crying foul in order to undercut normal fees.

Could Comcast be using its market dominance to leverage a company with a very significant client into paying up?

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time Comcast showed some disingenuous behavior on its part.

Let’s take a look at Comcast’s peer-to-peer sharing issues as a first example. In late 2006, Comcast began using hardware that disrupted multiple protocols used by file sharing networks, preventing users from uploading files.

Although Comcast claimed it was attempting to protect copyright laws, many critics said that instead it was a tactic used to manage traffic on their network.

There have also been connections made about Comcast’s competition with companies such as Netflix with Comcast’s merger with NBC Universal as well as the development of its own video-delivery program.

For these reasons, there are some fears of powerful cable/broadband companies such as Comcast eventually putting up hypothetical “toll booths” for customers and clients to have to pay in order to deliver and access info on the Web.

Perhaps Level 3 is simply crying wolf over the issue, but it does bring up an important issue: How will net neutrality be preserved in years to come?

The Internet was created as an open platform, where any parties could freely share information without fear of prioritization over another source. It’s this principle that has made the Internet such a hot spot for innovation and collaboration.

But the rise of the technology has also led to the rise of a few gigantic corporations with the power to control the information superhighway. But the surrounding debate surrounding the Neftlix/Level 3 catfight with Comcast has serious implications for the way we will surf the Web every single day.

So the question is: Will you be able to speak up about net neutrality when your beloved content is on the line?

Eddie Kim is a sophomore majoring in print journalism. His column, “Culture Clash,” ran Thursdays.