Peering Into The Soft Underbelly Of Net Neutrality

April Glaser and Seth Schoen | Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) | February 19, 2014

The net neutrality fight is moving in new directions, and quickly. Today FCC Chair Tom Wheeler announced that the FCC would press forward with new “Open Internet” rules, undeterred by last month’s court decision striking down most of the old ones. Last week, Comcast and Time Warner Cable announced plans to merge. The merger would create the largest Internet Service Provider (ISP) in the nation, with five times the subscribers of its closest competitor. With only one or two broadband providers available in most parts of the country, prices may soar while the quality of services plummets. A lack of competition raises serious concerns that huge ISPs will be able to favor particular sites and services.

Wheeler’s announcement today included a strong commitment to promoting the piece of the Open Internet rules that did survive judicial review: transparency. Unfortunately, even “transparency” is tougher to enforce than many might think.  That’s because so much of our connectivity depends on essentially secret “peering” agreements between providers.

To understand peering, let’s back up to last week: news of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger broke while EFF was investigating a claim that Verizon was discriminating against traffic from Netflix and Amazon Web Services. A blogger in Texas named David Raphael reported that his home Internet speed to Netflix was dramatically slowed down. He tested his connection, and it turned out that indeed his Verizon FiOS Internet connection was operating thousands of kilobytes per second slower than normal—when connecting to certain sites, but not others.