You're bored on a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon, so you settle onto your divan and call up a streaming movie on Netflix — Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death, say. What happens then?
You might imagine that the film gets shuttled to your house from a server in Netflix's California headquarters. But actually, Netflix keeps lots of different copies of the movie you want to stream in different parts of the country; when you press play, it tries to connect you to the closest version.
This isn't unusual — most big sites do something like this. To handle the logistics, they often employ the services of third-party firms known as content delivery networks, or CDNs. Early in November Netflix announced that it had signed a deal with Level 3 Communications to become its new primary distributor.
Then the trouble started. Level 3 began asking Internet service providers to give it more access to their networks so they could handle the influx of traffic expected to come from Netflix. In particular, Level 3 asked Comcast, the nation's largest ISP, for 30 new "interconnection ports" at major points around Comcast's network. Level 3 did not expect to pay Comcast for these new ports. As Level 3 saw it, the ports would be serving Comcast's customers — if Comcast's customers want to access Netflix movies, then it is Comcast's responsibility to pay for the network capacity. Comcast believed otherwise.
The company gave Level 3 six new interconnection ports for free. But it pointed out that every other content network that sends traffic down Comcast's line pays fees for that right. This is standard on the Internet — content networks usually pay ISPs for interconnection. If Level 3 wanted more access, it would have to pay up.
So who's got the stronger case? The answer depends on what you think about "network neutrality."
The principle of net neutrality states that network providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon should let customers access anything on the Internet that they want, using whatever devices they want (provided that they aren't doing anything illegal). Last week, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski unveiled a set of proposed neutrality rules that he argues will keep the Internet "free and open." Neutrality advocates are critical of Genachowski's rules, saying that his plan gives ISPs too much leeway to discriminate against certain traffic on their networks. They'd like him to push for far tougher standards, including a legal reclassification of broadband networks that will let the FCC punish ISPs that block content on their lines.
Those tougher rules aren't coming anytime soon, though, and you only need to look at the Comcast-Level 3 case to understand why. The deeper you dig into the fight between these two Internet companies, the less clear it is who's in the right.
Why should we be pushing for tougher regulations? Neutrality advocates say ISPs have an incentive to double-charge — that is, in addition to charging you for monthly access to the Internet, a company like Comcast might also begin charging Netflix for access to you. That's sort of like if the post office began asking both you and Netflix to buy a stamp for every DVD you get in the mail.
At first blush, Comcast seems guilty of charging Netflix (via its distributor, Level 3) to send videos to Comcast customers (who've already paid Comcast for unfettered Internet access).
But Comcast's defense isn't crazy. Level 3 is an unusual beast. In addition to serving as a content delivery network for companies like Netflix, Level 3 also operates one of the largest "Internet backbones," which you can think of as the major superhighways of the network. Internet backbones often connect to one another for free under so-called "peering agreements."
The theory is that it's usually mutually beneficial for two large networks on the Internet to connect to one another — customers of each network will be able to get to parts of the Internet that are covered by the rival's backbone. As a result, Comcast and Level 3 have long had a peering relationship, and under that agreement they tend to send each other roughly equal amounts of traffic, with no money passing hands. But now, with the Net-flix deal, Comcast says that Level 3 will send it five times more traffic than Comcast sends Level 3.
When traffic between Internet companies gets so out of balance, Comcast says, they usually sign new agreements that involve some kind of payment. But Level 3 says that by asking it to pay for something Comcast's subscribers want, Comcast is double-charging for content — a direct violation of network neutrality.
This is how network neutrality fights go. The problem is that the Internet continues to evolve, and nobody knows what it's going to look like in the future.
The upshot? Kiss network neutrality goodbye. Not the idea — just the push for tough regulation.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society.