Tunneling for neutrality: Concerning streams of consciousness

Sep 1, 17 • 5enses, Two-bit ColumnNo Comments

By Justin Agrell

My wife and I are “cord cutters.” We found that the alternatives to paying for television finally grew too numerous to continue paying a premium for the commercial-filled, product-placed offerings of our cable company. We pay for just internet now and for services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. We’ve been free from our cable television ties for more than three years and will never look back. Once you’re used to streaming, you’ll wonder how you ever put up with the way things were before. We now watch whatever we want whenever we want to. The movies are feature-length and not “edited for television,” and we do not have the commercials wasting our time.

Recently we noticed something strange, though. Youtube channels and other streaming sources began to buffer (pause to catch up due to a slow connection) far more often and would no longer just play through without interruption. We assumed it was an upset “in the cloud” and learned to ignore it until a good friend of mine recommended using something called a VPN (Virtual Private Network). He told us that our local internet provider was slowing the connection to streaming sites and that once he subscribed to a VPN service he could watch his shows without issue.

Now, being in the tech industry, I was aware of VPNs. They’ve been around for decades. In my experience, they were used to connect an employee working from home to the network of their workplace or in some cases connect different offices of a business together. This is how it works: A person’s computer creates an encrypted connection to the business’ network (called a “tunnel”) that allows the home computer to operate like it’s there locally. Simple, right? So what about my friend? Why did it work for him and shouldn’t it have slowed down his internet down since it’s a more complicated way to connect?

Photo by Justin Agrell.

You may’ve heard about Net Neutrality. I personally think a better name for it would have been Data Transmission Equality, but maybe I’m just being silly. The definition for Net Neutrality is treating all data equally and not discriminating against the different types of data by blocking or slowing the transmission. In theory, having a direct connection to your streaming service would give you the fastest speed but if your Internet Service Provider (ISP) is being “Un-Net Neutral” toward streaming data then your shows will slow down. This is where VPNs come in. When we tunnel our traffic through our ISP and to a VPN all of the data is encrypted and, to the ISP, it looks all the same which forces Net Neutrality to occur. So as long as an ISP is restricting your connection the use of a VPN will be faster. Alternatively, if they are treating your data equally then a VPN will actually slow your connection down. I hope that clarifies things.

My wife and I are now using a VPN and have definitely noticed a difference. A major part of the fight for Net Neutrality is to avoid having to pay extra to sneak around your internet provider’s malicious ways, but there’s a bigger picture here. All over the world, social networks like Twitter are being used to warn others of natural disasters and violence. We have seen that social networks operate faster during dangerous events than the emergency systems governments currently have. Try to imagine a world where people are getting injured or dying needlessly because they couldn’t afford to pay an extra $10 a month for access to Twitter. In a non-net-neutral world that’s what could happen. Every different service would be scrutinized and separated into the very package systems that the cord cutters are currently fleeing from with cable television. Several countries already consider internet access to be a basic human right in the modern world: Finland, Estonia, Costa Rica, France, Greece, and Spain all mandate affordable or free access to the internet for everyone in their governance.

I believe that there are many ways to successfully run a government, including the capitalist style of the U.S., but I also believe in a modern world that uses science and logic to find the best ways to function. I tell myself that my country will be the first in the evolution of a modern government but it’s constantly threatened by the very businesses that it incubates. As technology advances, it’ll become more desirable to turn our attention away from the politics and confusing ideas of all of this, but it’s important — now more than ever — that we don’t surrender to blind consumerism and we stay aware of what’s right for our future.

[Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this column do not necessarily represent those of … oh, wait a minute, we’re 100 percent on board with this.]

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Justin Agrell has been a certified IT technician since 2005. He loves Linux, adventure motorcycling, and computer gaming. To get in touch, just email him at Justin@U4E.US.

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