We Need To Be Pragmatic About The Principle Of Net Neutrality

from the guardian

The composer and aesthete Lord Berners was a famous eccentric who hated sharing railway compartments with strangers and developed a sure-fire way of ensuring that he travelled alone. He would stand at the door of his chosen compartment, maniacally beckoning people in. This being England, no one ever entered.

Nowadays, the same effect may be achieved by telling people that you wish to engage them in a discussion about net neutrality. You get the glassy smile, the sideways glance checking the location of the nearest exit, the sudden remembering of things that have to be done at that very moment, and all the other evasive tactics deployed by those who find themselves in the presence of a madman.

And yet, net neutrality is important. In the US four million people got so fired up about it that they wrote to Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), because they suspected he was about to renege on the sacred principle. Recently, even President Obama got in on the act, making a speech arguing that the FCC should create “a new set of rules protecting net neutrality and ensuring that neither the cable company nor the phone company will be able to act as a gatekeeper, restricting what you can do or see online”. Neutrality, Obama said, “has been built into the fabric of the internet since its creation – but it is also a principle that we cannot take for granted”. The FCC should “implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality”.

To understand this you need to know something of how the internet works. Basically it does so by breaking every communication into small pieces called data packets. Think of them as electronic envelopes: inside each is a small segment of an email, a photograph, a music track, a telephone conversation, whatever. So an email might be broken into dozens or hundreds of packets. These packets are dispatched across the net towards their destinations, often travelling by different routes and arriving in a different order from that in which they were dispatched. On arrival they are reassembled into their correct order by TCP (transmission control protocol) software.

More here.

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