Saturday, August 19, 2006

Net Neutrality... another oversimplification

Lately, yet another imbroglio has been brewing over the issue of “Net Neutrality”... or whether some of the big telecom and content companies should be allowed to lay fresh “pipes” for a new tier of access to the Internet. A tier with prodigiously expanded speed and service, but also one that costs a tariff or charge to enter and/or use.

Alas, Net Neutrality is yet another case of a serious matter of public policy degenerating and devolving into a screaming-fest that is rife with outrageous oversimplification.

One side in this controversy perceives today’s Internet as a bona fide miracle, one that used a socialist mechanism -- federal research and infrastructure subsidies -- to create something that thereupon fostered a vibrant environment, highly conducive to free enterprise. And at one level, at least, what could be more obvious?

In fact, I cannot think of a better example, even including the Interstate Highway System and Public Universities. Indeed, never before have so many millions been so empowered to engage in autonomous and knowledgeable commerce and/or social action, often cogently buying and selling, cooperating and competing, that surely would have both boggled and pleased Adam Smith. No matter that the midwife was The State.

This spectacular success prompts some to say “the present approach (universal almost-free access) works extremely well; so why change it in favor of a system that seems to favor elites over the little guy?”

The other side talks about choked flows and a “commons” that is rapidly being overgrazed by millions who will vastly expand use-rates forever, so long as it is free. They point to the fact that large entities legitimately need very fat pipes in order to carry large volumes of rapid data. If those companies and agencies are willing to pay for the pipes, should they not get what they need?

Couching the debate in terms of stupid/smart... and even good/evil... each side fears that the other will kill the golden goose. One side rightfully fears woolly-headed socialist "levelling" will impoverish a good thing, letting an investment-starved Internet slowly grind down to the shabby egalitarianism of Cuba. The other side rightfully fears that - once the big boys get their fat pipes, they will see to it that the Old Internet languishes and becomes useless, forcing us to pay through the nose to use their new pipes, effectively ending the frontier days of an Open Range... I mean, Open Net. (Yes, we have seen this before! Where is Billy the Kid?)

In fact, this is yet another example of an oversimplified dichotomy in which both sides are right in certain ways... and persistently unable to see the other side’s point.

For the record; if I must choose between these insipid sides I will back the miracle of the Internet as-it-is. Because recent history (and the Wild West) shows that there is absolutely no limit to the greed-driven venality of conspiratorial golf buddies who CLAIM to revere Adam Smith, but who, in fact, typify everything that Smith preached against! A new clade of feudal lords who connive in secrecy -- exactly as the king’s cronies did in Smith’s day -- to fix deals, arrange closed deals, avoid competition or accountability and ruin the effectiveness of the very markets they hypocritically pay lip service-to.

At every level, we are seeing exactly this kind of self-serving anti-enterprise aristocratism, calling itself “capitalism”... while “liberals” -- completely ignorant of the origins of that word -- neglect to raise Adam Smith as an archetype, a symbol, a powerful weapon against the New Oligarchy. A pity.

But, in fact, I choose NOT TO CHOOSE between these oversimplified sides. Because they are based upon the logic of the zero-sum game. ANd I believe that modernism can only thrive if we think positive-sum.

Why not let corporations build their second tier with a TIME LIMIT on their right to charge tariffs? Each new line of fiber or clutch of super-servers could initiate a sliding scale, similar to depreciation, after which they become part of an ever-growing commons?

This is the sort of thing that should have been done, 20 years ago, in CABLE so-called deregulation. The so-called “reform” of that time did nothing to foster competition. Rather, it provided each cable company with safe zones of monopoly! Suppose that the bill had included this simple provision, though:

“Starting now, each company is allowed to “invade” its neighbors’ territory (by laying new cable or by sharing existing lines) by half a mile per year. Five years after this bill has been passed, the companies will be REQUIRED to invade each others’ territory by half a mile per year.”

Yes, it would have cost them money. YEs, they would have been forced to cut prices everywhere their territories overlapped. And the problem is....?

Two sentences. Just two.

(Recall how I solved gerrymandering in just ONE? It might take FIVE to establish the office of Inspector General of the United States... and end the era of outrageous federal corruption forever.)


jbmoore said...


This is Cringely's solution to the problem ( If you read the previous column to this one, you'll be even more outraged. It does come down to greed in the end. Companies and some individuals pay for their bandwidth already, so why pay for a toll? Because it's another way to get money for something that they are already having to give away for free.

Rob Perkins said...

I predict that this discussion will devolve into a fight over whether or not Bill Gates or Steve Jobs is "Billy the Kid".

Which would be disappointing.

In any case, I've been mightily ambivalent about the net neutrality thing. Not really having a vote on the matter (in spite of the years of taxes my parents paid to help instantiate the thing) I don't know at all how to influence it, or whether I'd be right in taking any practical stand, let alone a possible one.

Mark said...

In a network you want to keep the layers isolated from each other. Let the venders charge users for access and bandwidth (as they do now) and charge content providers for access and bandwidth (as they do now). But to charge providers for my client's bandwidth for their site is bad design and only serves to increase revenue.

I used to be more on the fence on this one, but I haven't been for a while now.

Scott C. said...

Ed Felten has some interesting things to say about the subject over at Freedom to Tinker, including a link to a paper (pdf) about the Nuts and Bolts of Network Neutrality and a response to someone else's reponse to his paper.

I've also been listening to speeches by Eben Moglen, the counsel for the Free Software Foundation, and like what he has to say about taking back the public spectrum. Supposing we had little devices smaller than a cell phone that we all carry around that can route our Internet traffic over the air. We're all nodes in the network. A free network!

Freedom is on the March!

Tangent said...

Here's an example of what the advocates of Net Neutrality fear might happen.

There is a town bordering Haverhill, MA, that has an exclusivity deal with a Cable Provider (one that keeps advertising how "fast" they are with fancy commercials claiming "speed" is a liquid substance that can affect reality as well as the net).

As part of that exclusivity bargain, it is keeping other high-speed profitable internets out. It can't do much against the Satellite Internet services, but price is the big killer for that. But as this town owns its own telephone poles it is threatening to charge the local telephone company a surcharge in order to have the "privilege" of extending a DSL network into that town.

You heard me: they are demanding protection money from a business for the rights to use their telephone poles. So instead of paying say... $15 a month for a faster-than-dialup internet, you have to spend $60 a month for Cable internet.

This is what would happen without Internet Neutrality. If you want to have high speed internet, you spend 4x as much to reach essential websites. Sites such as Google and Microsoft will be put on "dial-up" status and searches or downloads will take hours instead of minutes.

Your solution has merit... but the real solution is to allow actual capitalistic expansion and competitive pricing instead of exclusivity deals and monopolies which will otherwise result.

Robert A. Howard

Damon TF Buckwalter said...

Net Neutrality is a side issue to what I see as the main one. How do you know you're getting what you pay for when you buy a connection to the net? What would keep a company from throttling back lower-cost services to push consumers to the premium levels? You can say that competition would do it, but with only a few suppliers, it doesn't take more than a nod and a wink to keep prices high.

I personally believe that both sides of this issue have their points. I think priority routing makes sense for VoIP (911 especially), streaming video, and any other traffic that degrades substantially when delays are introduced. However, I also like a net where YouTube can go from being non-existent to hosting 78 million videos in six months. The flexibility of the current system provides a frontier that -- like the Wild West -- can foster invention (new things) and innovation (old things/new uses). I'd hate to lose that.

I don't see the current battle as a deciding one. I wouldn't be surprised if networks sponsored by municipalities and ad-hoc relays got the upper hand in densely poplulated areas, but cables will always be required for connecting such networks. Regardless of what Congress does, infrastructure companies will try to squeeze ever last cent out of their customers and customers will get creative on how to bypass such charges.

Overall, I have confidence that the Net in 20 years will be better, cheaper, and more pervasive than it is today, but people will still bemoan the then-current state.


Mark said...

Ok. this is off topic, but what "Watch for David's TV show in the fall" all about?

David Brin said...

Mark calendars for November and watch for a new History Channel show starring (along with others) yours truly. Big audiences for the pilot might extend the gig! More later.

As for the libertarians and "pragmatic-incrementalism" See my four parter about THIS VERY SUBJECT at

Tony Fisk said...

The current problem with the debate on 'net neutrality' is a lack of defining terms. What is it, exactly? (beyond a term which frames the issue in terms of fairness). This is why it's devolving into simplistic rants.

As it stands, I pay an ISP so much a month for a certain bandwidth and volume. If I want more, I pay more (or switch services). Presumably the charges are set so that someone earns a crust (or several)

The net, like any infrastructure, is a commons. Like any infrastructure, it should be open to all (indeed, I've seen arguments that tiered approaches are just too complicated too implement)

The 'localised monopoly' problem is exactly what happened to services in Victoria when infrastructure was privatised by Kennett. However, the boundaries are blurring now, and in pretty much the same way that David proposes (eg utilities now offer gas, *and* electricity.)

David said:
recent history (and the Wild West) shows that there is absolutely no limit to the greed-driven venality of conspiratorial golf buddies

That, to me, is the clincher. I do not trust those who want a net that is more equal than others. That, and the trifling fact that the horses have bolted, and won't want to be rounded up in a hurry!

And I am not wholly convinced by cries that the internet is groaning under the load. Is it?

Some further reading:

Jonathan Zittrain on 'The Generative Internet', and his CITOKATE responses (part of the abstract is as follows:)
...This Article explains why PC openness is as important as network openness, as well as why today’s open network might give rise to unduly closed endpoints. It argues that the Internet is better conceptualized as a generative grid that includes both PCs and networks rather than as an open network indifferent to the configuration of its endpoints....

Some time ago, Tim Bray declared himself the 'honorable opposition' on matters of Web Services.

and, just to keep the balance, Celeste Biever asks 'Who Said the Internet was Fair?' (Oh, irony! New Scientist subscription required!)

... And this is just gorgeous! From the same source 'How to tell when your data takes the scenic route'

reason said...

I afraid I don't know enough about this to offer a definitive view. But the usual issues of monopoly/oligopoly and control raise their heads (has anybody seen a neutral printed media recently?)

Where I see a strong parallel is in scientific research. Who out there thinks that the way medical (especially pharmaceutical) research is being conducted today is a good thing? Could there be a parallel?

Blake Stacey said...

Warning: thread-jacking alert!

Via the good folks at Cosmic Variance, experience the news which will be sure to rock the worlds of physics and astronomy: Dark Matter Exists.

Now, this is metric gigatons of cool on its own merits, but what makes it apropos in this corner of the Net is the following bit:

"Despite the super-secret embargoed nature of this result, enough hints were given in the media advisory and elsewhere on the web that certain scientific sleuths were basically able to figure out what was going on. But they didn't have access to the best part: pictures!"

In other words, the amateurs and semi-professionals of the World Data Net are good at other things besides finding refugee Helvetian cabalists.

Chris Arndt said...

While I say that we should keep the internet as it is, I also claim that "net neutrality" is a myth in our status quo.

Essentially large chunks of the most common internet, as it is today, is stuff that is only available to users with a fast connection and high bandwidth regardless.

YouTube? MySpace? Google Video? iTunes downloading, BitTorrent, and streaming media in general are reliant on fast connectons just to make it minimally entertaining and not frustrating.

Everyone uses YouTube and everyone references it, except for those without the capacity to access a three minute music video cleanly and smoothly within a five minute block. On the other hand it takes me the better part of 90 minutes or more to download, say, a stream of Murray Head One Night in Bangkok through YouTube.

So you either pay for one level of internet, or you pay for a lesser level.

We can all say that there's a common internet but not all online content is intended for the same audience; we all know that.

Nate said...

Most of the companies pushing for tiered service aren't interested in laying new pipes. They want to take their current pipes, and make them "smart". "Smart" in this sense means instead of treating every packet the same, they'll flag them based on how much you paid, and the more you pay, the more priority your stuff gets. And if you don't pay, well, everybody who paid more gets ahead of you.
So, then when your service goes to crap because of the spammer and the porn king who paid more, they'll offer to sell you a higher priority plan, for more money. Which will get you back to where yours are treated the same. For the moment. Until they turn around and sell the spammer and porn-bot guys even higher priority flags. And then you can fix your service by paying more and...

And, of course, they can give their spam the highest priority. And companies that pay more can probably get higher priority, like the ads on a page loading long before the a rest of the page. Etc.

Seriously, we shoul trust the phone companies, after the way they made sure to drive out any competing DSL companies by making their service over the phone lines be crap while the phone company's DSL worked fine over the same lines? I say thee nay.

Cringely's other article/post about Net Neutrality is also good at:

Nate said...

Also, OT Alert:

See, this is one of those things where privatization is just bad. And not just because it's more expensive than having the government do it. I really have trouble believing the people who talk about how the Republican party was ever "serious" or "responsible", because for most of my lifetime, they haven't been.

"Within two weeks, the I.R.S. will turn over data on 12,500 taxpayers — each of whom owes $25,000 or less in back taxes — to three collection agencies. Larger debtors will continue to be pursued by I.R.S. officers.

The move, an initiative of the Bush administration, represents the first step in a broader plan to outsource the collection of smaller tax debts to private companies over time. Although I.R.S. officials acknowledge that this will be much more expensive than doing it internally, they say that Congress has forced their hand by refusing to let them hire more revenue officers, who could pull in a lot of easy-to-collect money."

Paul Elosegui said...

I am a small startup company. My service is popular and I already pay over $1000 a month in bandwidth to my telecom provider. Net Neutrality loss is a clear and present danger to me.

At present most of my visitors get quick access to my servers. In fact, most internet users around the world are no more than four or five router hops, degrees of separation, away from my servers. Same as most of the big company web serves.

But now my telecom company, not content with $1000 a month, is eyeing me for extra revenue. "Pay another $1000 a month or I will banish your servers to internet Syberia; a dozen router hops away from most internet users".

For a fast bandwidth service to exist, there has to be a slow service.

The future of my little startup is now in peril. No room for ambivalence; I have to fight for Net Neutrality.

Lenny Zimmermann said...


That's not privitization, that's outsourcing. And it only goes to show where Repugnicans have no real clue about actually scaling back the scope of government.

Net Neutrality, OTOH, I just can't seem to get too excited about. Is there really a problem that needs to be legislated here? I think we only really need to mess with it if it does become clear that monopolistic tendencies are starting to con consumers. Not sure if that is really happening right now, but I'm sure open to evidence proving otherwise (and evidence that current law is unable to correct the situation.)

Mark said...


My understanding (and someone can correct me if I'm wrong) is a law of some sort is necessary as the current one is too open to executive interpretation. Clinton and first term Bush assumed a neutral net but current Bush administration does not. Even if you believe in 'smart networks' you basically need that solidified in law before you can risk the expenditure to implement it.

Andrew Smith said...

(Tangentially related issue)

Does anyone know why the purported $200 Billion Broadband Scandal is not on the "national radar" right now?

It seems like it should be.

Andrew Smith said...

(or even my local radar...)

Try 2: $200 Billion Broadband Scandal

Doug S. said...

Why I'm Against Network Neutrality, from PC Magazine via Yahoo News

David Brin said...

This is an example of where the Libertarians, if they were practical, sensible, and therefore a potent force favoring free markets and freedom... instead of a bunch of goggle-eyed lapel-grabbers obsessed with hatred of government... could really make a difference. But alas, they never will.

Think. The GOP does not give a flying rat's patootie about free competitive enterprise. They care only about establishing and milking the rent privileges of a narrow elite, led by a foreign aristocracy. EXACTLY the situation that most upset Adam Smith.

Democrats could take advantage of this if they were agile. They could reclaim the original "liberal" - Adam Smith - as their own and fight for small business entrepeneurship... with some liberal modifications that pay heed to the "real costs" of products (e.g. resource depletion and pollution.)

But they keep letting themselves get diverted by "culture war," (The theme I plan to return to next time.)

If the liberatarians were (1) a force to be reckoned with and (2) focused on POSITIVE things like fostering enterprise, they could be the ones insisting that every "deregulation" be done in a way that maximally fosters actual competition. e,g, in the way that I describe above, insisting that fat companies compete.

Alas, the whores at Cato will do anything - find any excuses - for a monopolist.

Naum said...

What really irks me here is that this is painted as an issue between Amazon/Google/Ebay (i.e., major net ecommerce service provider) vs. big telecom.

Which totally ignores the takes of the folks who created the web or the glue that connects it together have been quite clear on why "net neutrality" has been the defacto M.O. and in lieu of legislative ripping apart, should be encoded to ensure the philosophy of an open internet.

Is it a perfect solution? NO, of course not.

Is there potential pitfalls lurking in codifying net neutrality? Sure, but I'll wager that they're a lot less than letting telcos run roughshed over a wonderous creation that (according to those who forged the way like Cerf) they did everything in their power to spike.

A choice between the architects that created the technology and doers who are enabling all the globe to transact virtually vs. PR flacks, lobbyists, and big telcos interested only in being able to milk existing techonlogy in a more profitable, double tax fashion?

The choice here is clear.

I am not a unbiased POV here, I own and build web sites for a living, so in that regard, I empathize with the previous poster...


gmknobl said...

Dr. Brin,

Since I don't know whether you receive my direct e-mails anymore, I'll put my note here.

Please look at John Dvorak's comment, in part, on the matter here:,1895,2006355,00.asp

TomC said...

The network providers certainly want to reduce the internet to their private pay-per-bit playground. On the other hand, their networks should be theirs to do with as they wish.

The right way to deal with them, rather than the rent-seeking, private-property-restricting approach taken by the "net-neutral" side, is to compete with them. Google and other bigger players on the NN side should toss their hats into the ISP game in a few big markets, doing it right and fairly, and scaring the **** out of the network providers, so they'll focus more on what their customers need.

What do the customers really need? Probably the right approach is to give every customer a modest amount of "interactive" bandwidth - i.e. suitable for VoIP or a low-lag interactive game - guaranteed in addition to the usual variable and bursty internet bandwidth.

If everyone is getting it, as a basic part of their unlimited-use contract, the idea of making people pay extra for such a basic quality of service will die a well deserved death.

Tangent said...

They already are. Yahoo DSL.

TomC said...

There are competitors, sure. And Yahoo is a member of CBUI, so that's a good point. But are they providing, as a bundled part of their basic service, any guaranteed QoS channels like those which the big network providers want to split off, charge extra for, and likely damage regular internet performance in order to "encourage" people to use? If not, chances are they're not scaring the big boys much.