Engineers propose a technology to break the net neutrality deadlock

September 13, 2016 by Tom Abate And Glen Martin, Stanford University
Credit: Wikipedia

Stanford engineers have invented a technology that would allow an internet user to tell network providers and online publishers when and if they want content or services to be given preferential delivery, an advance that could transform the network neutrality debate.

Net neutrality, as it's often called, is the proposition that internet providers should allow equal access to all content rather than give certain applications favored status or block others.

On home networks, favored status is known as fast track delivery. On mobile devices the terminology is zero-rating, because favored traffic does not count against data usage caps.

For years, the debate has been at an impasse: either the internet is open or preferences are allowed.

But the Stanford engineers – Professor Nick McKeown, Associate Professor Sachin Katti and electrical engineering PhD Yiannis Yiakoumis – say their new technology, called Network Cookies, makes it possible to have preferential delivery and an open internet. Network Cookies allow users to choose which home or mobile traffic should get favored delivery, while putting network operators and content providers on a level playing field in catering to such user-signaled preferences.

"So far, net neutrality has been promoted as the best possible defense for users," Katti said. "But treating all traffic the same isn't necessarily the best way to protect users. It often restricts their options and this is why so-called exceptions from neutrality often come up. We think the best way to ensure that ISPs and content providers don't make decisions that conflict with the interests of users is to let users decide how to configure their own traffic."

McKeown said Network Cookies implement user-directed preferences in ways that are consistent with the principles of net neutrality.

"First, they're simple to use and powerful," McKeown said. "They enable you to fast-lane or zero-rate traffic from any application or website you want, not just the few, very popular applications. This is particularly important for smaller content providers – and their users – who can't afford to establish relationships with ISPs. Second, they're practical to deploy. They don't overwhelm the user or bog down user devices and network operators and they function with a variety of protocols. Finally, they can be a very practical tool for regulators, as they can help them design simple and clear policies and then audit how well different parties adhere to them."

Successful trial run

The researchers recently presented a technical paper on their approach at a conference in Brazil.

As part of their work, they field-tested Network Cookies in a home setting by working with Google to give users a way to send a fast-lane service request through their home routers to the ISP's network. The researchers called this application Boost, but other home implementations of Network Cookies are possible so long as they respect user choice and are open for all applications to participate in.

In this case, when the researchers deployed Boost in 161 homes they found that users opted to fast-track websites related to news, video, voice and sports from all over the world, showing that preferences enabled by Network Cookies would actually get used.

The researchers also ran a separate online survey of 1,000 smartphone users. Though they didn't actually implement Network Cookies in a mobile setting, their survey showed that smartphone customers would probably choose to zero-rate many different applications if they could.

"It immediately became clear that – given the choice – users will express their own unique preferences," Yiakoumis said.

A timely development

The Network Cookies approach comes at a time when regulators around the world are taking different approaches to net neutrality. Last year, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted to maintain an open and neutral internet on home networks but still allow mobile carriers to engage in zero-rating.

Regulators in India have banned zero-rating, including Facebook's Free Basics program. The European Union recently released new net neutrality guidelines that allow room for zero-rating and fast-track exceptions without explaining precisely how exceptions would be granted.

Amid this regulatory ferment, some experts have argued that preferential delivery could be compatible with net neutrality – if users rather than networks or content providers made the decisions

But until the Stanford work there had been no technology to put users in charge – nor any indication that people would use preference tools were they available.

Now the researchers hope that their work will encourage all the parties – user advocates, network providers, content creators and regulators – to start thinking of how to create the policies and incentives that would be needed to make such technologies part of an open internet.

"We're trying to make the point that the whole discussion over net neutrality has been largely adversarial and misguided," Katti said. "Government has been invested with the interests of the users, and it has been arrayed against the large ISPs. Network operators are at loggerheads with . But if users can pick their favorite content for favorable delivery, it's easier to ensure that user choice is respected and companies compete fairly for ' attention. And the way to do that is through technology, combined with transparent, unambiguous and easily auditable policies."

Explore further: Q&A: What is net neutrality and why does it matter?

More information: Neutral Net Neutrality. DOI: 10.1145/2934872.2934896

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6 comments

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Eikka
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 13, 2016
What's the idea of prioritizing your own network traffic? Of course one would fast-track and zero-rate everything they use. Give it to me as fast as possible with no caps or quotas.

And it would hardly be a meaningful solution to the issue if the choices made by one user affected the network speed of another user by collective preferencing at the network level, because big popular content providers would get prioritized anyhow over smaller more obscure services trying to compete with them.

And that's the point of network neutrality - the internet is like a road, and if there's a traffic jam there's no special police escort that let's Amazon's trucks around by the shoulder and leave MomAndPop.com delivery van sitting there waiting.
wolfkeeper
not rated yet Sep 13, 2016
There's already a field for this in the IP headers; but everyone ignores it. It wasn't used much, but everyone totally ignored it after Microsoft set all the packets sent from Windows to the highest possible priority, then it became unusable.
KelDude
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 13, 2016
Just the big providers' way of creating a speed rated "pay to play" scenario that pretends to be neutral. A sneaky way of slowly turning the internet into a toll highway via the back door.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Sep 13, 2016
after Microsoft set all the packets sent from Windows to the highest possible priority, then it became unusable.

The way I read this the approach is different. Your average data rate doesn't change. You just can set priorities for types of data. What you describe is Microsoft just giving itself an overall Boost (in their terms). But this would give a Boost to some (of your data) data at the expense of giving a negative Boost to other data. Since this is zero sum game there's no 'pay to play' capability inherent in this approach.
Eikka
not rated yet Sep 13, 2016
You just can set priorities for types of data.


But that's already possible in your router/firewall configuration, presuming you have the kind of hardware that is capable. On the OS level, you can also prioritize different network traffic for yourself - there's plenty of bandwidth managers you can download, that let you set speed limits for different apps and services.

The thing is, most people don't really need that sort of prioritization. When they're watching Netflix, they're not playing online games or checking their email, and vice versa.

The proposition only makes sense if it's on the ISP's network level, to let them know that you don't need so much speed for e.g reading the twitter feed so they can let other traffic through first, but it's fraught with the danger that people will eventually set everything to max priority.
Steve 200mph Cruiz
5 / 5 (1) Sep 13, 2016
This doesn't do anything to alleviate the inequality problem.

Just instead of corporate interests taking all of it, the rich people and their kids gadgets will use it up. They'll just pay more and more, my bills amount to pennies to some people.

Just stop trying to have one over on us for once. Internet access creates 1 job for every 10 people and provides the equal chance of education for everyone.
Don't take that away for Cable streaming.

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