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May 4, 2006

Wrestling with “network neutrality”
Posted by Patrick at 11:14 AM * 34 comments

The peculiar thing about former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry’s recent Huffington Post comments attacking advocates of “net neutrality”—the cause extolled by Save the Internet and Rep. Markey’s proposed “Internet Neutrality Act“—isn’t that the “net neutrality” position is obviously 100% right. Cory Doctorow, no pro-business libertarian, raises some interesting doubts:

I agree with net-neutralists—the Bells’ and cable-companies’ plans to put toll roads on the Internet’s pipes are evil incarnate, and the Bells’ arguments that they’re currently delivering packets for Google “for free” are steaming BS. Google pays for its bandwidth, and pays handsomely.

That said, I remain skeptical of the idea that this is a problem with a regulatory solution. The FCC is slow, often captured, and breathtakingly dumb about technology (this is the agency that passed the initial Broadcast Flag rule, after all). Asking them to write a set of rules describing “neutrality” and then enforce them seems like a recipe for trouble to me.

For example, say that your university maintained a pool of DSL lines for students, and a data-center for courseware, and created dedicated connections between them—is that “neutral?” What about Akamai: they put servers in ISPs’ NOCs around the world, and then sell mirror-space on those servers to people who want optimized delivery to those ISPs’ customers. Is that “neutral?” How will you tell, from the outside, whether an ISP is delivering slow packets to you because it’s “non-neutral” as opposed to badly managed, overloaded, or staggering from some kind of net-quake?

At the end of the day, we’re talking about a set of rules governing networking configurations. Network configurations aren’t something that we have ongoing, permanent consensus on—rather, they’re a hodgepodge of each admin’s idea of the best way of provisioning her network for her customers and users. Trying to write a regulation—or even comprehensive best practices—for a “neutral” network is going to be really hard. Getting it wrong could mean screwing things up even worse—imagine if the FCC could be convinced to create a neutrality rule that preserved Akamai’s business-model but punished their innovative competitors.

The plans to put toll-roads on the Net are terrible and we need to do something about them. I just don’t know what we should do.

Rather, what’s interesting about McCurry’s posts is the way he manages, while ostensibly decrying the incivility of Internet discourse, to display contempt for his audience in practically every line. “I feel like screaming ‘puh-leeeze.’…Oh yeah, how many of you lifted a finger to protect the First Amendment when the Washington Post and other ‘MSM’ cited it to ferret out the truth about WMD and the wars inside the U.S. intelligence community over the pre-Iraq war (and now pre-Iran war)?…You all worship at Vince Cerf who has a clear financial interest in the outcome of this debate but you immediately castigate all of us who disagree and impune our motives.” Leaving aside the mispellings, not to mention McCurry’s alternate-world notion that nobody in the blog world criticized the Administration’s misuse of intelligence during the runup to the Iraq war, it’s simply hard to believe that this ranting nitwit was once the press secretary to a President of the United States. After watching his you-kids-get-offa-my-lawn routine, it comes as no surprise that McCurry’s representation of the regulatory history in question turns out to be a flat-out lie; nor, for that matter, that Mr. Liberal Mike McCurry is in fact a cozy inside-the-Beltway business partner with wingnuts galore. Whoever’s right in this argument, it seems pretty likely that whatever side this dingbat is declaring for is wrong.

It’s like the argument over nuclear power. In an abstract sense, nuclear energy probably is one of the few possible ways out of our civilization’s energy-and-environment crisis. In the real world, every known iteration of the “nuclear industry” has so thoroughly discredited itself as an honest player that it’s hard to imagine anyone with a brain trusting such people with the rhetorically-traditional burnt-out match, much less an operating nuclear reactor.

Someone on Politech opined that the “net neutrality” argument comes down to whether you fear government failure or market failure more. That’s an attractive simplification, but I suspect posterity will regard it as a petty distinction. The real fight is between cronyism and the rest of us, and an advantage of democratic government, even in its debased forms, is that its failures can sometimes be exposed and addressed.

What the telcos want isn’t to optimize the pipes for the benefit of all. What the telcos want is exactly the kind of secret, monopolistic power to propose and dispose that Adam Smith warned us all business combinations tend toward. In essence, they want to be Tony Soprano, except without any imaginable check on their dealings.

Regulatory capture is a real problem, and governments can be secretive and tyrannical, but even dumb agencies—even in the age of Cheney!—have handles by which they can be brought to account. Multinational corporations, on the other hand, are basically accountable to no one. In the unending war against self-dealing, corruption, and cronyism—really, organized crime, although we don’t call it that often enough—sometimes the bad guys are wearing “government” hats and the good guys are labelled “business.” And sometimes the hats and labels are reversed.

Comments on Wrestling with "network neutrality":
#1 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2006, 01:11 PM:

I support the net neutrality act. I think that what we're talking about is the internet is like one massively large collection of toll roads built by private companies. And I don't have a problem with that model for the system. But I think it is a model that with small nudges could become a feedback loop where the larger companies swallow smaller companies.

What you don't want is a system where the more money you have means the more money you make, simply by virtue of having more money to begin with. This will feed back on itself and create a new group of Internet Baron's.

The system needs to maintain a balance to some degree so that the little guy with a great product can get just as good service as the big guy with a crappy product. You don't want to see Linux disappear because it's free, and downloads take days, and it can't afford to pay for bandwidth the way Microsoft does. If microsoft can outbid Linux for bandwidth, then their natural tendancy will be to do that, to kill the competition by squelching their access. That's a weird hypothetical in some ways, but I think it shows how favoring the rich can be a problem.

Which is what we're talking about in the end, right? Favoring the rich, not because of their content, but because they're rich. And if being rich, in and of itself, is the sole controlling factor to access, and access is what gets you money, then the rich will neccessarily get richer because of their initial richness. And of course, because of this, the richer you are, the more you'll like this idea because it means you can buy out your competition even if their content is better.

The system need be designed so that the field is level and the determining factor for success and access is quality of content, not depth of pockets.

#2 ::: Electric Landlady ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2006, 01:18 PM:

Great quote from Cory Doctorow. Ever since I learned about rules-based vs. principles-based standards (about a month ago) I'm coming to see that the distinction is useful in so many more areas than just accounting and corporate governance. (The argument goes, if I have it right: Rules-based standards make a list of things you cannot do, so people spend a lot of time and ingenuity finding loopholes to get the results they want without breaking any rules. Principles-based standards say "I don't care HOW you get there, these are the end results we do not wish to see." It's a letter vs. spirit of the law thing, basically.)

/random brain blip

So, basically, yes, I agree. Net neutrality = good. Setting out specific rules for attaining it = probably bad. Doesn't mean we shouldn't come up with better ways to approach the problem, though.

#3 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2006, 01:19 PM:

I believe the net has to be neutral in the interest of civil and civic liberties. Like Cory Doctorow, I'm not sure what the best way to go about securing that neutrality would be.

I agree entirely with Patrick that Mike McCurry has blown every shred of credibility he ever had (though I have to note that he was a flack, and, consequently, started out with only a small amount).

We live in a world in which there is a constant tension between those who own great wealth and those who have very little; that's not new. What is, alas, is that today the owners of wealth have succeeded in persuading a sizable chunk of the population (in the US, at any rate) that giving them more power will benefit people who have little wealth or power, because then they might have a chance to grow up to become Donald Trump. Here, again, we have a case of the turkeys being asked to vote for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and a hefty pay increase for the board of Tyson's Foods.

#4 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2006, 01:25 PM:

oh, and as for abuse of Net Neutrality by government enforcers, has anti-trust laws shown a pattern of abuse by the government against fair and non-monopolistic companies? I'm not a history guy, so i don't know. But it doesn't feel like that's been the case.

Obviously there are good ways to design antitrust laws and bad ways. And for net neutrality, I'd hope that they wouldn't legislate specific types of technology, simply because the government can't keep up with it. But I can't say I've seen a pattern of abuse by the anti-trust squad to be concerned of government abuse by the Net Neutrality squad.

The thing would be to make sure the law itself doesn't get too heavily influenced by the corporate donors so that "neutral" has a funny definition. But the same problem could occur in anti-trust legislation...

#5 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2006, 01:31 PM:

The relatively simple fix in a less plutocratic system would be to apply statutory responsibility for all transmitted content to any non-neutral bandwidth provider. (Charge for traffic shaping and you're automatically liable for all traffic transmitted, precisely the opposite of being a common carrier.)

Since the US telcos have escaped common carrier obligations without cost (aside from lobbyists), the loss of net neutrality inside the US parts of the net is more or less a done deal. It's been a telco core objective -- if they're money to be made off this, they're going to make it -- for a long time, and it's unlikely that any amount of grassroots pressure can produce anything cohesive and long-term (the telcos have been working for a generation to get their monopoly back) enough to counteract it.

Since strangling the netroots is a plausible political objective of the present US administration, I can't see any way to change the outcome.

The long term fixes are forced flat pricing for bandwidth, so that everybody who buys bandwidth gets the same price -- what the CRTC enforces in Canada; it works, and is why there are 40-odd DSL providers in Toronto -- and splitting the network component of the telcos from the service providing components of the telcos. The result of this is that Bell Nexia, the network and bandwidth provider, as distinct from Bell Sympatico, the DSL service provider, charges Bell Sympatico the same bandwidth price as the other DSL companies, despite having an owning cartel in common with Bell Sympatico.

And yes, the network component company is a regulated monopoly, and yes, this does mean regulated prices for the DSL service provider companies. It works pretty well, whatever the theoretical objections; DSL is cheap, plentiful, and there's a ton of consumer choice.

#6 ::: Jack Heneghan ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2006, 01:33 PM:

The various internet service providers have Quality of Service gaurantees they are contractually obligated to meet. These QoS guarantees would apply to both to the content requestor (you) and the content providers. (Please make sure your QoS agreements don't allow for routing interference)

The Content providers are paying the ISP $XXX to have pipes that can transport the megabits or gigabits of data they are spewing into the 'net.

And the ISP will have QoS contractual agreements with all the other ISPs they connect to, to make the internet and to transport that spew to whoever requested it.

If the ISP isn't going to live up to its QoS promises, then I think they will be shortly driven out of business.

The problem will be if an ISP develops different QoS agreements based on where the content is coming from. If the ISP in a monopolistic position then the user's access to data can be compromised.

#7 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2006, 01:36 PM:

"Vince Cerf"?

#8 ::: lightning ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2006, 01:50 PM:

I have no doubt that the "real" target of the phone companies is "voice over IP" (VoIP). It competes directly with the telcos.

Shortsighted? Yes. Surprising? No.

#9 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2006, 01:53 PM:

Yes, "Vince Cerf." And yes, obviously McCurry has no idea who Vint Cerf is, or what he's accomplished.

#10 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2006, 01:54 PM:

And I really doubt that VoIP is the "real" and/or only target of the telcos.

#11 ::: protected static ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2006, 02:03 PM:

But I think it is a model that with small nudges could become a feedback loop where the larger companies swallow smaller companies.

This has already happened, to a degree... I've got a friend back in DC who I met while he was working for, way back when they were a funky, quirky regional ISP (he got me my first 'real' email account) - and not a major backbone provider.

#12 ::: JonathanMoeller ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2006, 02:58 PM:

The "tiered-Internet" thing is an incredibly blantant power-grab, and anyone with an ounce of sense and a smidgen of tech knowledge can see it for what it is.

Unfortunately, the majority in Congress is neither Democratic nor Republican, but card-carrying members of the Corrupt 'n Stupid Political Action Front. Plus, none of them have any understanding of technology whatsoever. I'd bet only a dozen have ever heard of TCP/IP. Maybe six have some vague understanding of what it does, maybe two know what the letters stand for, but I'm absolutely certain none of them could explain the difference between the application layer and the network layer.

Ask them the difference between 802.11b and 802.11g, and you'll hear the crickets chirp.

And these are the people who will legislate the infostructure of the 21st century! A pity the EFF doesn't have unmarked enevelopes full of grimy non-sequential $100 bills.

#13 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2006, 03:07 PM:

I had to Google Cerf. He's one of the architects of TCP/IP, which I knew more about back when I was taking Novell courseware.

#14 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2006, 03:48 PM:

Well, given that some of them are still wrestling with the concept of e-mail ("computer mail" as one of them said), I'm not as surprised as I might have been. I think they like letting the lobbyists write the bills; it gives them more time to party or whatever it is they do when they're playing hooky.

#15 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2006, 04:11 PM:

Here in the UK, my MP seems to have some clue about email. He's a Government Whip, which puts him on the path towards ministerial office, but does mean he might be disinclined to rock the boat.

But if the Internet in the USA gets this highest-bidder-bandwidth treatment, what's it going to mean for thew rest of us? I find myself wondering what a Pacific Rim earthquake might do to the trans-oceanic cables; how much traffic from Japan and China would start going across Asia to Europe. How much from the US West Coast? What happens if Google can connect to Europe for less cost via Asia than via the USA.

Yes, it's a bit like routing around damage, but I don't think it's quite the same.

#16 ::: hrc ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2006, 04:53 PM:

More generally, someone was lamenting the loss of competition in newspapers in NYC today, saying that pre-'63 strike there were many, many more choices you could make, but now there's just a few.

I think that is, in part, why the internet took off. Lack of choice/pov in the MSM. And if net neutrality is not protected, we will eventually end up just like the newspapers--big, bad, and few.

#17 ::: PhilPalmer ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2006, 06:12 PM:

First impressions count. And the first impression that journalists had of bloggers was Instapundit. A little more research gave them LGF. We should not forget how journalists stick to a narrative like glue once they have found one. "Goshwowboyohboyohboy," anybody?

Rather, what’s interesting about McCurry’s posts is the way he manages, while ostensibly decrying the incivility of Internet discourse, to display contempt for his audience in practically every line

But one day men will go to the moon, and one day Josh Marshall will totally pwn these bastards.

#18 ::: Henry ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2006, 11:13 PM:

Michael Froomkin had a couple of good posts on this a little while ago (forgive me if I don't dig them up; packing to go to Ireland). The gist of his argument is that you can't get there from here - legislating for network neutrality isn't going to work very well, and what you'd really need to do is to revisit the regulatory decisions that made it possible for monopolies or duopolies to dominate the local broadband access market, Thus you'd allow real competitive forces (rather than the schmarket schompetition that I suspect the Politech guy is trying to defend) to prevent anyone from filtering out stuff that users find valuable; in a real marketplace they could simply take their business elsewhere. Yochai Benkler goes a little further - he argues that the best way forward is to regulate to allow as many municipal wireless networks tapping into the backbone as possible - again circumventing the telcos and cable companies. None of which is to distract from the boneheaded stupidity, greed and dishonesty of McCurry and his paymasters - I suspect that he's blustering so much because he knows he's making shitty arguments in bad faith.

#19 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2006, 11:20 PM:

Calling the network neutral is like saying, "guns don't kill people, people kill people." Can a tool be impartial if it was created by somebody and for somebody?

#20 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2006, 01:20 AM:

To take a somewhat different tack on this issue: for a long time--decades that I know of, perhaps over a century, the various telecom providers have wanted to be not just the carriers of information, but its sources. I can remember many examples from the bad old days of telecom. And this is yet one more. Thing is, the telcos usually lost money trying. It's a very different business, really: a telcomm company makes its money, basically, from leasing the use of its real estate: physical objects in physical locations which carry information. A producer, a game company, even to some extent a publisher, makes its money selling experiences (yes, even publishers). Completely different set of skills, completely different business model, and being good at one is no guarantee of being good at the other. So I think this is even a bad idea for the telecomm firms, regardless of how much they think they want it; they aren't media companies, and the sooner they get that idea of their heads the better off they'll be.

#21 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2006, 01:25 AM:

On the other side of the coin, there might be something to allowing telecomm companies to charge for high-bandwidth, low- to medium-latency services--that is, video and VR--and requiring them to offer low-bandwidth service and high-latency for free: that would include voice and e-mail.

#22 ::: Glazius ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2006, 07:39 AM:

Okay, correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't somebody do a study on non-network-neutral systems a while back and find out that, due to the overhead in determining which packets get priority, even the most favorably routed packets in a non-network-neutral system would go more slowly than any packet in a network-neutral system?


#23 ::: Eric ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2006, 07:48 AM:

Randolph: Today's high-bandwidth service is tomorrow's low-bandwidth service.

Broadband speeds in Europe and East Asia are now as high as 24Gbps to 50Gbps (in metropolitan areas). When the US gets there, I'd like to see the pipes be content neutral.

The larger issue: This isn't a hopeless area to regulate. Just tell the backbone companies that packets are packets, and they have no business discriminating on any bases other than (a) ingress point, (b) egress point, or (c) the quantity of data. Throw in an "abuse" clause to make it easy to filter spammers, and you're golden.

Compared to the questions handled by the FDA or the FEC, this is simple.

I have to stand with Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee on this issue: We need some kind of net neutrality framework, or the American net is toast. The telcos are trying to renegotiate the current informal agreements (using their monopoly power), and without some regulation, the status quo will not hold.

#24 ::: Avedon ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2006, 07:52 AM:

What I know is that the attempt to control content has been going on for a long time.

It's not just about profits, I assure you. And it's not just about wanting to be content providers because they think there's more money it.

It's about making sure that folks like us can't achieve the penetration in spreading ideas that folks like them can. They don't like our ideas, and they don't like our unruly, bolshy resistance to being pushed around.

To them, the period when there were three TV networks all carrying the same Approved Message was the real Golden Age, not because the TV shows were better, but because we couldn't talk back.

#25 ::: Robert Thau ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2006, 08:40 AM:

Ummm... folks, it's not just VOIP, and we have that straight from the CEO of (nouveau) AT&T:

How concerned are you about Internet upstarts like Google (GOOG ), MSN, Vonage, and others?

How do you think they're going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there's going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they're using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?

(Commenting off-pseudonym, for once, because there's a tangential relationship to some real-world stuff I did once upon a time...)

#26 ::: adamsj sees what looks like really icky comment spam ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2006, 08:41 AM:

And I have an actual comment--but I'll wait.

#27 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2006, 08:53 AM:

Two things:

First, Patrick, when you say "Cory Doctorow, no pro-business libertarian", that raises a question for me: What are Cory's politics, anyway? I've been reading him for years now, and I have no idea. (Seriously.)

(I'm not sure there can be a libertarian who isn't pro-business, but that's another kettle of fish.)

Second, I'm with Mike McCurry on those who bleat "MSM! MSM!"

Watching left wing types lap up the pure hatred the right wing has pissed into that dogbowl gives me a great deal of sympathy for The Press--the real mainstream media is People and COPS, not the New York Times.

#28 ::: Jack Heneghan ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2006, 12:09 PM:


Sometimes I wonder if these CEOs know what business they are in.

Seidenberg, at Verizon, said basically the same thing (January 05, 2006):
There's no such thing as a free lunch on the Internet, according to Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg, who said Thursday that providers of bandwith-intensive Internet applications, including Google and Microsoft, should "share the cost" of operating broadband networks.

They are getting paid for the use of their facilities, both by the user and the content provider. For what I am paying for broadband access to the internet, I don't see any free lunch.

#29 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2006, 01:19 PM:

Google and Microsoft, should "share the cost" of operating broadband networks

So, google and microsoft are currently getting their internet connections for free? Sounds like some CEO's need a smacking around...

#30 ::: Avedon ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2006, 01:45 PM:

Does anyone know what adamsj is talking about?

The right-wing's criticism of "the MSM" is a different thing from liberals' criticism of the corporate media. McCurry doesn't even begin to understand that difference; he thinks Firedoglake is Powerline.

#31 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2006, 02:01 PM:

Avedon says, correctly in my opinion, that:

The right-wing's criticism of "the MSM" is a different thing from liberals' criticism of the corporate media.

However, what I usually read on the left isn't a criticism of the corporate media. Usually, it's a left-wing version of the right-wing idea summed up in (and usually using the right-wing concept, not just its name) "MSM".

What's happened is that the right has framed the debate with that little Orwellian grunt "MSM", and the left, by taking on the language of the right, helps promote its goal--at a minimum, the degitimation , if not the destruction, of the press.

If people on the left want to criticize the media, they should, and should use language which doesn't contain right-wing ideology.

#32 ::: Seth Breidbart ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2006, 08:51 PM:

I'm in favor of network neutrality.

I'm strongly opposed to any attempt to legislate it. I know a little bit about how routing works and what it takes to keep the Internet running. I know that I couldn't write a law on network neutrality that would actually prevent what I want to prevent and allow what I want to allow, and I'm damn sure that the government would be a lot worse at it than I would.

What happens when somebody does a Denial of Service attack and "network neutrality" says your provider can't block his packets?

Can you write a "network neutrality" law that doesn't outlaw TCP backoff? Do you want a law written by somebody who doesn't even know what that is?

What will prevent Southern Bell from giving lousy service to Google is the fact that Southern Bell's customers will desert in droves if it tries. (Think about the billboards from a cable company competitor, touting how a google search returns in .25 seconds on their system rather than 3 minutes on Bell's.)

Eric, it isn't that easy. A phone company can easily prevent streaming video from other than its own datacenter merely by looking at "ingress, egress, and quantity".

Glazius, somebody may have done that study, but they're wrong (and irrelevant). It's irrelevant because the goal is to destroy your competitors, and if you make yourself 10% slower at the same time it doesn't matter. It's wrong because any such conclusion requires assumptions that don't apply (e.g. routers running full-out at maximum speed, which happens in the backbone but not at the customer-facing points, which is where non-neutrality would likely be implemented).

#33 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2006, 09:45 PM:

Avedon, it's not, I think, mainly that they don't like our ideas; it's that they really believe they know what we will like best, and that's what they want to sell us. This, of course, goes to the heart of the difference between a quasi-real-estate business model and a content business model; customers for real estate (and communications) are assured, where customers for content are fickle.

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