The topic of net neutrality is one of the hottest debated issues of the modern day, and for good reason. We all use the internet and thus have a natural tendency to weigh in on issues regarding its regulation.
The internet, however, is a complex hierarchical structure riddled with reams of vagaries. Without first understanding them, people shouldn’t attempt to propose legislation.
Unfortunately, from Congressmen to commentators to comedians, this is exactly what we’ve been seeing regarding net neutrality.
The only hot political issue where coverage is comparably poor is that of firearms. In fact, USA Today and Vox.com tweeting out explainers on the civilian AR-15 with a chainsaw and grenade launcher attached to it is the perfect analogy for how net neutrality is covered in the media.
But before getting to net neutrality, there are some key concepts about how the internet works that need explaining.
What is the Internet?
The internet is best described as a “network of networks.” It’s divided into regions that perform different functions. Access to the internet is provided through an Internet Service Provider (ISP). The ISP you’re probably most familiar with is the one you pay directly for your home internet (for example AT&T, Verizon, or Bell Canada). These providers are known as Tier 3 providers. But ISPs do a lot more than simply sell you a home internet plan. There are also Tier 1, and Tier 2 internet service providers.
Here’s a rough sketch of the interconnected web in the United States.
Tier 1 ISPs are known as the backbone of the internet. There exist about a dozen of them around the world, and they peer with one another, thus not having to pay anyone for transit (they have no providers). Tier 1 networks can reach every other network on the internet.
Next on the internet hierarchy are Tier 2 ISPs. These are effectively a bridge between the Tier 1 internet backbone, and the Tier 3 access ISPs end users use to connect to the internet.
And finally, between all of these, we have Internet Exchange Points (IXPs). This is a large, physical exchange point where data is exchanged between peers.
For a closer look at the function these exchange points serve, here’s a second diagram.
In the above diagram, Internet Service Provider (ISP) A, B, and D are all transit networks. With reference to the above diagram, these can either be Tier 1 or Tier 2 networks. For example, AT&T, or Verizon Enterprise Solutions.
ISP C and ISP E are access-ISPs. Meaning, this is where you — a home user — connect to the global internet. You go to your local ISP and obtain a modem. This is how you gain access to the outside World Wide Web. As mentioned above, AT&T would be an example of ISP A, ISP B or ISP D (transit networks). However, AT&T also offers services as an access ISP (this is simply a different division of the company) and deals with selling customers plans for their home internet (see here.)
Lastly, on this diagram, we have two internet exchange points. Recall in the first diagram, we saw these connected IXP points between networks. (1) The New York International Internet Exchange (NYIIX) and (2) the London Internet Exchange (LIIX). These are two of the many internet exchange points that exist around the world. These physical locations are large hubs where independent networks exchange traffic with one another.
What is Net Neutrality?
Traditionally, if Google wanted access to the global internet to deliver its content to you (an end user) it would go to an ISP, and become its customer. The ISP would, in turn, provide transit to Google.