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Net neutrality: How to spot an arts graduate in a tech debate

Sorry lawyers, but the Packet Pixie doesn't really exist

Analysis Arts and humanities graduates are schooled for years in metaphor and analogy - and these are very useful skills for understanding the world. But what happens when an approach based on metaphor and analogy meets hard science and engineering reality? And what happens when the chosen metaphor doesn't fit?

While you can choose your own identity, you can't ultimately change the reality of how network packets are delivered - and customers are being sold short. Customers should be demanding higher quality of service from networks, rather than clamouring for "neutral" networks, which in reality don't, can't and will never exist.

It's easy enough to spot when Stephen Fry offers a ridiculous explanation of a technical subject on QI (as he did here and here and here - just a few examples among many). Unfortunately however, sometimes a foolish soundbite metaphor grows legs and turns into a movement. The "net neutrality" cause is a vivid example. It's the creation of lawyers, policy wonks, professional activists and journalists, most of whom received impeccable humanities educations, and who probably mean well. But they're all using metaphorical logic, when boolean logic is what's needed.

Earlier this month Ofcom quietly published a fascinating technical study which helped highlight this: casting light on the difference between the arts grad approach to network management and policy, and the hard numerical reality.

Rejoicing in the dry-as-dust title of A Study of Traffic Management Detection Methods and Tools, the boffins at Predictable Network Solutions examined traffic management tools commonly used to infer that ISPs are violating "network neutrality" - tools such as Glasnost, Net Police and ShaperProbe. None of the tools examined are fit for regulatory use, they conclude.

Such violation-detection tools need to infer, from a tiny number of static data points, rather than observe from a wide-angle vantage point, what the network is doing.

The study explains:

It is inherently impossible to detect directly the specific application of differential treatment (other than by inspecting the configuration of network elements) ... Even when there is such an intention it may not have any effect.

Furthermore, the assumption that traffic management is the cause of service differentiation is itself a narrow and misleading assumption. If you take away traffic management from a network, the network wouldn't suddenly become a Garden of Eden-like paradise. It probably wouldn't work at all.

"Net neutrality" turns out to be a completely inappropriate metaphor to describe the physical reality of packet networking.

Such awareness of the physical reality is what separates network techies and engineers from the typically arts or social-sciences qualified advocates who campaign for "net neutrality".

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