Reconsidering Net Neutrality

When Net Neutrality concerns started to rise up 5 – 10 years ago, it seemed like an open and shut case. Obviously we want the net to remain neutral, but at what cost?

The Internet is humanity’s most powerful instrument of free speech and commerce, legislation that has power over the content of internet traffic has the potential to impact our speech and pretty much everything we do.

It is extremely important that we are extremely sure we want governments to have legislative power over content. Maybe we should get down from our soap boxes to really make sure we’re getting behind the right cause here and we’re not pushing for something we’re going to regret.

In the beginning…

The original hysteria surrounding net neutrality in the mid-to-late-00s was a reaction to throttling and network management practices ISPs were implementing at the time. Bittorrent  and video streaming were gaining momentum, eating up larger and larger heaps of bandwidth and ISPs weren’t having it. They enacted network policies to throttle certain types of packets, limiting our ability access content.

Us nerds weren’t having it! We believed we should be able to access anything on the internet we damn well pleased. We cried chicken little.

If Comcast was throttling bittorrent, what was going to stop them from slowing down competing video content when they bought NBC? What would stop them from charging a new startup for the fastest access to their customers?

We demanded the government step in to regulate this impending problem! We demanded a neutral network! “All bits are equal!” we proclaimed.

For the sake of innovation and progress, the internet should be a level playing field for all. Reddit and the New York Time should get the same treatment over the network. Bittorrent and Bitcoin should both flow easily.

All of this is perfectly reasonable and I’m not about to argue against it. But I question whether net neutrality actually accomplishes the level playing field we desire.

Level Playing Field

The history of the internet has shown that reliable (fast, unencumbered) access to a popular service is not a key factor to their success. Every success app or service has gone through a growth period when servers constantly grind to a halt and access becomes difficult. We put up with fail whales for years! Years before Twitter, I distinctly recall when Livejournal was facing such growth pressure that they charged a small fee for access to premium servers guaranteed to be faster and more reliable. Even tonight HQ Trivia Live continues to have major server lag while hundreds of thousands of people compete for prizes. Hell, the horrendously throttled bittorent that we all complained about in 2010 is as popular as ever.

If history continues to repeat itself, then reliable, fast connections will continue to play only a minor role in the popularity of an internet service.

An unregulated network could lead to artificial and long term connectivity issues for young and/or competing services. But, corporations have a much simpler, old school tool at their disposal. A tool that is completely legal, completely out of scope of the net neutrality discussion. Marketing and cooperative agreements.

Here are just a few real wold examples of business practices that are currently happening:

These are just a few examples from Canada, where we have some semblance of Net Neutrality. Promotions like this have a huge impact on which players win and lose in the marketplace.

Stop The Presses

Imagine it’s the 19th century and you run a number of printing presses. Imagine you have discovered a magical supply of parchment, ink, and a mechanism that magically runs the presses automatically, pumping copies of any newspaper, handbill or pamphlet you feed in. It’s neutral.

You have the capacity to produce more paper every month than could be read by the world’s population. You’re presses are in high demand and you have contracts with your clients to provide them unlimited printing services.

Once your business has been running for a while, you start to inspect some of the documents your clients have been printing. You discover that some of them are advertising a service that competes with your brother-in-law, get rich schemes, pages full of one word “spam” (whatever that is) and other complete and utter garbage. You can’t print this stuff!

But you know that if you completely refuse to print your client’s publication, they will be quite upset, they might even leave for that other supplier. Instead, you decide to print their copies slightly slower and hope they don’t notice the bundle is a little smaller the next time the picks up a shipment.

When your clients eventually catch on, they are furious! Freedom of the Press has been a thing for quite some time now and they believe their rights are being violated.

Imagine your country is governed by a reasonable king, who rightly agrees, your clients freedom of the press is being violated. A new law is passed demanding that all presses print whatever papers they are handed, regardless of content, under penalty of death.

This is a good thing! Trolls and merchants alike rejoice in the streets!

A couple of years pass and the law has come up for review. In this time the king’s advisors have caught wind that these printing presses have been used print all manner of nonsense that the King would find displeasing: somehow has smuggled out his prized book collection and is making copies for anyone to read! A clever foreigner has devised a scheme whereby the presses themselves act as a sort of currency, nobody is able to explain exactly how it works, but it’s become quite valuable.

The King is very unhappy. At the stroke of midnight as the law is about to expire, a small little clause to the law “*Under the discretion of His Royal Highness.”

Is this still a good thing?

Slippery Slopes

The premise of Net Neutrality is based on a slippery slope that imagines a worst case scenario where ISPs:

  • provide preferential “fast-lanes” for favorable service and/or throttle
  • charge differing access fees for different sites
  • outright block competing services
  • all of the above
  • something even worse that I’ve totally missed.

I’m not so sure this slippery slope is plausible.

As I understand it – from the years 2005 – 2015 US ISPs operated within a framework where they had a lot of leeway to discriminate over packets. There are numerous examples of ISPs (ahem Comcast) attempting bandwidth throttling schemes during this period. Everytime they eventually caved to consumer pressure… despite very poor competition.

So, history leads me to believe that with a vigilent group of watchers and a small amount of competition, we can successfully keep this worst case scenario at bay.

In the future, I wonder if net neutrality becomes less and less of an issue as bandwidth capacity continues to increase year-over-year. An ISP has little incentive to throttle bandwidth when even the slowest of slow speeds are fast enough to serve content with minimal network impact. I think it might be happening already. For example, my ISP (kudos Shaw) which previously had soft bandwidth caps and various levels of throttling, now just have totally unlimited access. For no reason, they have no real competition, there was no market pressure.

Re-evaluating the equation

By definition, net neutrality legislation gives the government oversight over the content of bits traveling across the internet. A best case scenario, blanket law that said “All packets are to be treated equal, no blocking, no throttling. Peroid. No questions asked.” is a judgement call. It is a call in our favour, but it is also a framework whereby the government will discuss and attach future internet freedom related issues. It is a slippery slope into the danger zone of internet censorship.

The real debate should not be surrounding whether or not we want a neutral internet.  Of course we do.

The real debate should be about which slippery slope we consider more dangerous:

  • Cooperate interests shutting down the free and open internet in favour a closed toll-way of terror.

Or

  • Current and future governments using internet legislation as a stepping stone to hamper our freedoms.

In this bloggers opinion, history has shown us that voting with your wallet is much more effective than… actual voting.

TIL Netflix Packets Never Leave Town!

I got a message from my ISP’s (Shaw) Bandwidth Team today. I wasn’t able to return the call, but I suspect they were calling to scold me about my bandwidth usage.

Some History

Bandwidth cap policies were a knee jerk reaction from ISPs ill-prepared for the era file-sharing on Napster and later voracious bittorrent usage. An era when someone using hundreds of gigabytes of bandwidth every month was likely a digital media hoarder, pirating more MP3s and MKVs than they could ever consume in a lifetime. An era of poor network management technologies, when a heavy movie pirate, could legitimately have a massively negative impact on other customer sharing their node.

I would never condone the hostile vilification of customers that these sorts of policies brought on. However, I am a reasonable person and I can understand where the ISPs were coming from. One the one hand they had the MPAA to deal with, on the other than they had technology and networks that were still maturing and not totally up to the task.

Times Change(d)

In 2016, it is a completely different landscape.

ISPs, hardware vendors and standards bodies have come a long way in improving network congestion. One of the reasons you don’t see buffering youtube videos is not because your ISP and copyright lawyers have convinced your neighbour to stop pirating with bittorrent. It’s because the the network has improved in general.

Even if your neighbour has stopped torrenting movies though, they’re probably consuming media online than ever. If he’s anything like me, he’s been using perfectly legit streaming services and the amount of bandwidth used by these streaming services is just as intensive as bittorrent. Netflix and friends are not doing anything magical to compress the video any more than the high quality rips you can find on the pirate bay.

Free-for-all (well, except the customer)

However, they have done something magical that makes these bit free for your ISP.

In 2014, Netflix revealed that they provide an “Open Connect Appliance” to ISPs. Free of charge.

Netflix’s OCA is a $20,000 server, that sits inside your ISP’s datacenter and stores a good chunk of Netflix’s library. They give it away for free because it is key factor in loading Netflix movies without having to wait for buffering. It stands to reason that Youtube, Crackle, Akami or any company looking to provide fast content has a similar set up (but they haven’t said as much).

Before today, I assumed that Netflix probably only had a few of these boxes in each ISP’s network. I assumed Shaw’s would be located in Calgary or wherever their HQ is.

Nerd Stuff

Then I dug into it by using very rudimentary investigation tools. Every resource on the internet has a unique URL and Netflix’s URLs seem to have logical names, so it wasn’t really too hard to figure out.

Here’s the breakdown:

When I load a video from Netflix it’s served from a URL that starts with: https://ipv4_1-lagg0-c005.1.ywg002.shaw.isp.nflxvideo.net.

This isn’t a website you can actually visit, it’s just the URL were Netflix videos are hosted. For me.

You see, before I even load the video, Netflix has figured out the closest physical location of the video file I’ve requested. When every second of load time counts, every kilometre of fibre is important. Hosting a file in Winnipeg instead of Calgary makes a difference.

I think it should be clear to most what’s going on in the URL, but if not. I’ll break it down further. URL are ordered from right to left.

.net = network
.nflxvideo = their stock symbol + the word ‘video’
.isp = Internet Service Provider, indicating that every URL above sub-domain are for an individual ISP
.shaw = my ISP
.ywg002 = Airport Code for Winnipeg + 002, probably the #2 OAC in Winnipeg
ipv4_1-lagg0-c005.1. = It’s hard to guess what exactly this means. It almost looks like it has something to do with my connection type.

In other words, when you request a video from Netflix your request does not get routed through expensive backbone connections to some far away server in Dallas or San Francisco, it does not even leave the city! It might only good a few metres down the street.

To further confirm this, I ran a traceroute, a command that follows a packet through the network.

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 12.41.48 AM

I’m uncertain where those IP addresses are physically, they don’t have convenient hostnames that give it away. Maybe a Shaw employee could leave the details in the comments. But it’s clear that the packets absolutely stay inside Shaw’s network.

Stop Harassing Customers

In conclusion, when packets do not leave your ISPs network, your ISP does not have to pay a third-party to transmit and receive those packets to and from their destination. Whether you are watching 1 hour of Netflix per week, or 100 hours, it doesn’t cost your ISP any more money.

If this is true for other content providers and content distribution system (and it probably is), then we actually have a network architecture where the heaviest data is the least expensive, if not completely free.

Harassing customers about bandwidth usage is non-sensical.

 

Update for clarity: The IP addresses that the Shaw related hostnames resolve to are owned by Shaw themselves (as verified by ARIN).

Watching US Netflix in Canada, now easier than ever!

Update: I am sorry to report that Tunlr is no longer supporting Netflix. See their blog for more info. If you know of another FREE DNS service please leave a comment.

My friend Ron tipped me off to this free DNS service that allows you to watch Netflix (and other US geo-restricted content) outside of the USA! For free! (Did I mention that it’s free?)

These guys are calling themselves Tunlr.

I love these services. Unlike VPN services, with these DNS redirects your streams don’t get slowed down by being  proxied through a US server.

We set it up on our AppleTV and it works like a charm!

Here are the instructions for setting up ATV:

  1. Open Settings
  2. Open General
  3. Open Network
  4. Open Configure TCP/IP
  5. Select Manually (we assume you already have a fully functional network setup)
  6. Skip IP address by selecting Done (hit the left button on the remote and press OK)
  7. Skip Subnet Mask by selecting Done
  8. Skip Router Address by selecting Done
  9. Use 199.167.30.144 when asked for the DNS address and select Done
  10. Select Restart in the General menu

Instructions for other devices can be found on their site.

Edit: I should mention, that if you have a number of devices on your home network that you wish to use to access US services, you’re probably better off setting your router’s DNS to Tunlr.