“Network neutrality is a buzzword but there is no agreed definition"

Associate Professor Katerina Argyraki © 2021 EPFL

Associate Professor Katerina Argyraki © 2021 EPFL

EPFL Associate Professor Katerina Argyraki works on computer networks and neutrality, a notion she believes is critical to ensuring that the internet continues to foster competition and innovation.

The internet today is central to our lives. It has become a primary source for our news, social interaction and education, with new applications emerging all the time, such as online medicine. But how do we make sure that everybody has equal access to the content that is delivered to us online?

This notion of equality is known as ‘network neutrality’ and, at its most basic, means that an Internet Service Provider (ISP) treats all traffic the same whether it comes from Google, Facebook or any other content provider. At the moment, however, it’s a concept that is being challenged.

Katerina Argyraki, an Associate Professor with EPFL’s Network Architecture Laboratory (NAL) in the School of Computer and Communication Sciences (IC) was recently one of ten researchers named on the list of 2020 N²Women: Stars in Computer Networking and Communications. She focuses her work on internet transparency, asking questions that won’t necessarily be of interest to the big tech companies that research and innovate with their own networks in their data centers.

“I think academia needs to think about other problems that are outside the big data centers of these big providers and that’s what I’m focusing on. If there are things that happen on the internet, how can we tell? If there are internet service providers that cheat or that prioritize certain applications, can we tell? And what are good ways to define what we want from the network, what kind of fairness, what kind of neutrality? So, I focus a lot on how to define network neutrality and how to measure it.”

The whole notion of network neutrality has been in the firing line. During the Trump administration, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) of the United States abolished neutrality rules and whilst Argyraki says Europe is a little more loyal to the notion of neutrality, the problem is that a technical definition doesn’t yet exist, “if you say the network should “treat all traffic the same,” that doesn’t really mean anything to an engineer, there is no mathematical definition.”

“A key question is how to capture different qualities of experience. By asking users to rate their quality of experience for different applications? By measuring network-level metrics, like throughput and/or latency? Is it possible to compare a user’s quality of experience for different applications, for example, video streaming and online shopping? We need a clear definition of neutrality – what exactly do we mean when we say that “the network treats all traffic the same” – so that we can actually measure it,” she continued.

Argyraki is currently collaborating with David Choffnes at Northeastern University. Choffnes is behind Wehe – an application that users install on their laptops or smartphones that collects network measurements and assesses whether users experience neutrality violations. Argyraki’s lab is working on a network-tomography algorithm that can help localize these neutrality violations to specific network areas, i.e., specific ISPs.

But why does network neutrality matter? Whilst to many, discussions around net neutrality may seem buried in technicalities, Argyraki is passionate that the issue has big picture implications.

“Let’s put the internet aside for a moment and consider classic education where kids take a bus to school. Isn’t it obvious that we want all kids to take a good bus to school, isn’t it obvious that we wouldn’t want some kids to take a bus that takes 3 hours and is dangerous? We want to give all kids the same resources to start their life,” she says. “In addition, we need to make sure that the internet continues to foster competition and innovation. The internet is what it is because anyone can put their content out there and anybody can access it. If you violate neutrality you change that. We know it’s never perfectly fair for everyone, but we need to try.”