Net neutrality is a very important topic in the world these days. On one hand, a free and open internet is hugely important for our societies and the spread of information; on the other, autonomous cars, telemedicine, and virtual reality are all pegged to nearly overwhelm the tubes that the internet is made of, requiring prioritization of traffic. Luckily, researchers from Stanford think they’ve found a workable solution, one that puts the user first.
In layman’s terms, net neutrality refers to the data that’s going to and from your device out to the wide world. No single piece of data, no matter what service it comes from, gets preferential treatment. In other words, your YouTube, e-mail, cat videos and adult entertainment all come in at the same speed. In this way, internet service providers don’t get to decide which services you should get faster, and don’t get to charge you more for faster access to Netflix or Gmail through so-called “fast lanes”. On mobile, the story is pretty much the same with the added argument that some services might get preferential treatment through “zero-rating”: their data doesn’t get counted against data caps.
As you can see there are good parts to net neutrality – my ISP doesn’t get to decide what media I consume and at what speed; but there are also bad or limiting parts – what if I did want my Netflix to flow faster through the tubes than my cat videos? I don’t have that choice.
Now, Stanford researchers think they’ve found a fix to this conundrum, offering users the best of both worlds through “network cookies”. Just like website cookies, these are tiny bits of code that instruct a server, or your ISP in this case, on how to deliver specific data.
Working with Google, the Stanford engineers tested out a system relying on network cookies, which allowed users to opt into “fast lanes”, but also got to choose which services do that. This second part is the key to the entire project: the user needs to be able to choose every individual service that benefits from “fast lanes”, or “zero rating” in the case of mobile internet. And the system needs to be open to every single application, without disadvantaging smaller companies that can’t sign huge preferential deals with ISPs.
In a trial run in 161 homes, the Stanford researchers showed that, given the choice, users would allow their favorite services to run in this “fast lane” mode, while keeping all other services on an equal footing.
This could spell out a good middle way out of the net neutrality debate: the internet stays free and open, but users get more choice, and ISPs can make more money but don’t have the power to decide how we consume content.
Whether this type of system ever gets implemented remains to be seen. With radical new technologies rapidly coming our way, and a worldwide debate around net neutrality still taking place, solutions such as these are very important for the future of the internet.