Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication.” Wikipedia.
Net neutrality is widely regarded as the cornerstone of the internet’s success. By providing all services and users with an even playing field, innovation is encouraged, and dynamic startups are can thrive.
From the consumer point of view, net neutrality means that the content you want (and for which you pay bandwidth) is delivered to you at the same high speed, regardless of what that content is.
Unfortunately, in January this year the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit effectively struck down net neutrality, and the FCC, whose job it is to defend neutrality, and in spite of a massive public outcry that has led to an unprecedented 3 million comments being left on its public consultation website (causing it to crash twice), rather oxymoronically seems determined to ‘save’ net neutrality by destroying it.
Given that the new head of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, worked for years as an industry lobbyist campaigning against net neutrality, this is as depressing as it is unsurprising.
In the meantime, the big telecoms companies have wasted no time tearing net neutrality up, the reasons for which are largely threefold:
- They can now offer companies who can afford to pay for it faster access to their customers. While this brings in additional revenue for the ISPs, it means that smaller companies, startups, charities, and anyone who cannot afford to pay for the additional bandwidth will have putter along in the ‘slow lane’. The only winners here are large established businesses, who can use this uneven playing field to stifle their competition
- They can now offer customers cable-style bundled internet packages which provide customers access to only a limited number of channels (i.e. websites and internet services). To get unlimited access to the internet, customers will have to pay more. Needless to say, this has terrible social implications, but the process is already underway
- They can discriminate against services that compete with their own. The classic example of this is that both Comcast and Verizon (who both run internet streaming services), almost immediately following the Court ruling in January started to throttle Netflix traffic. Their excuse is that Netflix unfairly hogs their bandwidth so it only fair that it should pay for it, but surely customers are paying for the ISPs for that bandwidth precisely so they can stream services such as Netflix?
How VPN can help
Using a VPN service connects your computer (including mobile devices) to a VPN provider’s servers using an encrypted tunnel. Because all data passing through this tunnel is protected by strong encryption, your ISP cannot know what users are doing on the internet, and therefore cannot prioritize or discriminate against specific services.
Just to demonstrate how effective this can be, in July Colin Nederkoorn, CEO of Customer.io, performed a series of tests in which using VPN improved his connection speeds when streaming Netfix over his Verizon connection tenfold!
Using a VPN therefore prevents throttling of internet services, and will likely become a vital tool in the struggle to preserve net neutrality. However…
It is possible for ISPs to throttle / block VPN itself
Although all data passing through an encrypted VPN tunnel is hidden from an ISP, it can ‘see’ the tunnel itself, and can therefore choose to throttle or block all such traffic. Alternatively, it can simply throttle or block all traffic connected to known IP addresses belonging to VPN providers.
Throttling or blocking VPN traffic is very problematic, as businesses rely on VPN to secure internal communications, process payments, and for any number of routine purposes that are vital for them to operate, so banning VPN protocols would have a very negative impact on the economy.
This is a problem compounded by the fact that running OpenVPN (or SSTP) over TCP port 443 makes VPN traffic indistinguishable from the HTTPS traffic (https://), which uses the protocol on which almost all internet security relies.
VPN traffic is therefore only blocked in extremely restrictive countries such as China or Iran, but there is some evidence US companies may be throttling it. Fortunately, this can be easily bypassed by switching to tcp port 443, tampering with this would effectively break the internet.
Many providers’ custom VPN clients let you easily switch ports. To do this in the generic open source OpenVPN client, you can edit the relevant .ovpn config file in a text editor, and manually change the settings.
If you have problems then your VPN provider should be able and happy to provide assistance.
Many VPN providers also offer ‘stealth’ servers, which use obfspoxy like technologies to mask the use of VPN traffic.
A bigger danger is that ISPs might throttle the internet for users connected to the known IP ranges of VPN providers. As a user, there is not much you can do about this apart from choose to use less well-known VPN providers, but the providers themselves can recycle their IP addresses, setup new proxy servers, and perform various other tricks to help combat this threat.
Throttling outside the United States
The recent collapse of net neutrality in the US, and in particular the closing of the FCC’s public consultation period (which was extended from July 15th to September 15th in order to handle the huge volume of comments it received), has focused world attention on the issue of throttling in America, and has made it an urgent priority for American netizens.
The rest of the world, however, is watching events in the US very closely, and ISPs everywhere are hoping it will set a precedent allowing them to charge differently for different levels of internet access and bandwidth.
The EU and Brazil have passed legislation aimed at guaranteeing net neutrality, but even here, the fact that a huge proportion of all internet traffic passes through the US (even when the US is neither its start point nor its destination) means that what happen in the States is likely to affect users elsewhere.
In all cases, as long as it is not itself throttled, VPN will help (and discussed above, even when it is throttled, options are available).
A note on BitTorrent throttling
Many ISPs, even in countries which uphold net neutrality, discriminate against BitTorrent traffic on the assumption that all such traffic involves illegal copyright infringement. To see whether your BitTorrent traffic is being throttled, check out this fantastic tool by Measurement Lab, which lets you see how much throttling of BitTorrent traffic is performed not only by country, but by ISP.
Again, using a VPN (which allows P2P) will bypass this throttling, while providing the additional benefits of hiding what you are downloading from your ISP, and by using an outwards facing proxy IP address, will ensure your downloads cannot be traced back to your real IP address.
Because VPN involves data travelling through an extra leg of the journey as it routes through the VPN servers, and because encrypting and decrypting data takes processing power, using VPN always comes with a speed hit, which can be as low as 10 percent, but can be much more.
The benefit of using VPN to evade throttling therefore depends on the speed hit resulting from using a VPN, put against the amount of throttling that is occurring. As demonstrated fairly spectacularly by Mr Nederkoorn and his 10 x faster Netflix speeds when using VPN however (as mentioned earlier), the benefits can still be considerable.