No, We Still Can’t Definitively Prove Your ISP Is Slowing Netflix Traffic To Make An Extra Buck

While filing a net neutrality complaint is now easier than ever, actually identifying violations may not be. In the new age of interconnection, usage caps, overages, and pay-to-play zero rating deals, less technical users simply may not understand when they’re being screwed by their ISP, as these violations aren’t nearly as ham-fistedly obvious as outright blocking or throttling of services. That’s why the Open Technology Institute’s MLAB recently introduced the Internet health test, which runs user connections through a bevy of speed and performance tests to determine whether or not ISPs are engaged in any shenanigans.

Last October, MLAB released a study (pdf) that strongly supported Netflix, Level3 and Cogent’s claims that ISPs were intentionally letting peering points to transit operators saturate to try and force companies like Netflix to begin paying for direct interconnection. In short, neutrality advocates believe ISPs had moved net neutrality to the edge of the network, using interconnection to grab the pound of flesh from content companies they’ve long stated was their end goal.

The problem is both sides of the equation (whether that’s Netflix or AT&T) keep most of their data on interconnection (and the deals they strike) private for competitive reasons, meaning that while signs (and thirty years of history) pointed to ISP skulduggery, actually proving it is difficult. It’s apparently becoming less difficult with the new consumer connection data being collected by MLAB, which the Guardian this week claimed proves big ISPs are intentionally degrading network performance across some networks:

“The study, conducted by internet activists BattlefortheNet, looked at the results from 300,000 internet users and found significant degradations on the networks of the five largest internet service providers (ISPs), representing 75% of all wireline households across the US…In Atlanta, for example, Comcast provided hourly median download speeds over a CDN called GTT of 21.4 megabits per second at 7pm throughout the month of May. AT&T provided speeds over the same network of ⅕ of a megabit per second. When a network sends more than twice the traffic it receives, that network is required by AT&T to pay for the privilege.”

This is, consumer advocate group Free Press claims, proof positive that ISPs are up to no good:

“For too long, internet access providers and their lobbyists have characterized net neutrality protections as a solution in search of a problem,” said Karr. “Data compiled using the Internet Health Test show us otherwise – that there is widespread and systemic abuse across the network. The irony is that this trove of evidence is becoming public just as many in Congress are trying to strip away the open internet protections that would prevent such bad behavior.”

The problem? While the Guardian report references a “new study,” no study has actually been released that I could find (MLAB apparently just shared some selective data with The Guardian). That brings us back to the fact that the biggest problem here continues to be a lack of transparency on the part of all the players involved. But it’s pretty hard to claim a “study” proves much of anything when there’s no actual study, suggesting some over-eagerness on the parts of consumer advocates here.

Shortly after the Guardian piece MLABS did post a blog entry that sheds a little more light on the data they’re collecting, but it’s worth noting that while MLAB engineers are confident in saying these slowdowns are due to business choices and not network capacity, they’re not yet willing to definitively state why some transit routes suffer more than others:

“It is important to note that while we are able to observe and record these episodes of performance degradation, nothing in the data allows us to draw conclusions about who is responsible for the performance degradation. We leave determining the underlying cause of the degradation to others, and focus solely on the data, which tells us about consumer conditions irrespective of cause.”

If you’re interested, all the data MLAB is collecting has been released publicly and is available through the telescope program, which can be used to pull down and analyze subsets of the data.

Still, despite some of the breathless rhetoric in the Guardian piece neutrality advocates still haven’t obtained the AT&T lawyer proof silver bullet that indisputably proves large ISPs have been up to no good. I’m not entirely sure this can even be accomplished without access to raw, confidential ISP data and internal correspondence that may or may not even exist (how do you “prove” Verizon intentionally isn’t upgrading a port?). Sure, most people can study AT&T and Verizon’s behavior over the last thirty years and conclude that yes, this sort of thing would certainly be in their jackassery wheelhouse, but proving it is kind of important if you want these kinds of claims to be taken seriously.

Still, the fact that people are crunching and closely analyzing the data, combined with the new and novel threat of a regulator that’s not asleep at the wheel, appears to have many of these companies magically and suddenly getting along famously. This suggests, contrary to broadband industry doomsday prognostications, that the net neutrality rules are having a positive impact on consumers, business interests, and the Internet at large.

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