Does Akamai Violate Network Neutrality?

by on January 9, 2008 · 6 comments

One of the things I disagreed with in Yoo’s paper is that he puts a lot of stock in the notion that Akamai is a violation of network neutrality. Akamai is a distributed caching network that speeds the delivery of popular content by keeping copies of it at various points around the ‘net so that there’s likely to be a cache near any given end user. Yoo says that the existence of Akamai “attests to the extent to which the Internet is already far from ‘neutral.'” I think this is either an uncharitable interpretation of the pro-regulation position or a misunderstanding of how Akamai works.

Network neutrality is about the routing of packets. A network is neutral if it faithfully transmits information from one end of the network to the other and doesn’t discriminate among packets based on their contents. Neutrality is, in other words, about the behavior of the routers that move packets around the network. It has nothing to do with the behavior of servers at the edges of the network because they don’t route anyone’s packets.

Now, Yoo thinks content delivery networks like Akamai violate network neutrality:

When a last-mile network receives a query for content stored on a content delivery network, instead of blindly directing that request to the designated URL, the content delivery network may redirect the request to a particular cache that is more closely located or less congested. In the process, it can minimize delay and congestion costs by taking into account the topological proximity of each server, the load on each server, and the relative congestion of different portions of the network. In this manner, content delivery networks can dynamically manage network traffic in a way that can minimize transmission costs, congestion costs, and latency…

The problem is that content delivery networks violate network neutrality. Not only does URL redirection violate the end-to-end argument by introducing intelligence into the core of the network; the fact that content delivery networks are commercial entities means that their benefits are available only to those entities willing to pay for their services.

I think Yoo is misreading how Akamai works because he’s takes the word “network” too literally. Content delivery networks are not “networks” in the strict sense of physical infrastructure for moving data around. The Akamai “network” is just a bunch of servers sprinkled around the Internet. They use vanilla Internet connections to communicate with each other and the rest of the Internet. Internet routers route Akamai packets exactly the same way they route any other packets.

The “intelligence at the core of the network” Yoo discusses doesn’t actually exist in routers (which would violate network neutrality), but in Akamai’s magical DNS servers. DNS is the protocol that translates a domain name like to an IP address like When you query an Akamai DNS server, it calculates which of its thousands of caching servers is likely to provide the best performance for your particular request (based on your location, the load on various servers, congestion, and other factors) and returns its IP address. Now, from the perspective of the routers that make up “the core of the network,” DNS is just another application, like the web or email. Nothing a DNS server does can violate network neutrality, just as nothing a web server does can violate network neutrality, because both operate entirely at the application layer.

So in a strict technical sense, Akamai is entirely consistent with network neutrality. It’s an ordinary Internet application that works just fine on a vanilla Internet connection. Now, it is true that one of the way Akamai enhances performance is by placing some of its caching servers inside the networks of broadband providers. This improves performance by moving the servers closer to the end user, and it saves broadband providers money by minimizing the amount of traffic that traverses their backbones. This might be a violation of some extremely broad version of network neutrality, and there’s certainly reason to worry that an overzealous future FCC might start trying to regulate the relationship between ISPs and Akamai. But Akamai is not, as Yoo would have it, evidence that the Internet is already non-neutral.

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