The Importance of Net Neutrality

Although I remain a huge admirer of Lawrence Lessig, I am ashamed to admit that I never fully understood the importance of net neutrality until last week. Mr. Lessig described network neutrality in these urgent terms in 2006:

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:
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“Net Neutrality” destroys innovation. Sure, a big dumb pipe sounds fun, but what if the only way to get YouTube to rural areas is to treat streaming video differently than the bits being sent to update someone’s push email?

What about VoIP, or Skype?

If you don’t like the railroad, buy some road and lay your own tracks. If you can’t turn a profit and get investors, then no one wants your railroad anyway.

Yes, we should pressure companies to “not be evil” via boycotts, information campaigns, and buying from competitors. Federal legislation is not the means of achieving this goal, however, as it restricts innovation and prevents technological growth we can’t imagine today.

Keep your regulations out of my Internet. Please.

I’m curious to know how you even came to believe that net neutrality was “fundamentally about file sharing and BitTorrent” in the first place.

The Brazil/Hush-a-Phone connection is pretty neat. Brazil is one of my favorite movies, and I’d known about the Hush-a-Phone story (and was just recently thinking about how it relates to net neutrality) but didn’t realize the Hush-a-Phone creator’s name was Harry Tuttle.

Some of the vocabulary surrounding Internet policies is a bit confusing, and it seems like the fear of corporate control is obscuring the idea of government-regulated communication. The issue isn’t: “we have to protect ourselves against malevolent monopolies.” The Internet is a service established and maintained by companies that earn profits by being useful.

The best aspect of the net neutrality debate is rising consumer awareness. If Time Warner decides to kill NetFlix traffic, consumers will speak with their blogs, BBB complaints, and their wallets. Most populated areas have a choice between multiple ISP’s, and the current Internet infrastructure doesn’t make competition impossible. I am personally happy to accept minor throttling of less-demanded traffic so that the Internet can continue to innovate at the rate of consumer demand.

Obviously emergency systems should be free of throttling, and educational facilities have a strong demand for neutral and reliable ISP’s - companies and contracts will be more than happy to step up to this demand. I have a hard time seeing how a “right” to the Internet has any place in our law - is it because we need to regulate anything that passes a certain threshold of usefulness and profitability?

The answer to increased innovation is NEVER to take the decisions out of the hands of both the providers of services and the consumers. They are the only ones that should be involved and you have decided a third party should make these decisions on their behalf.

Once again, con men arrive, instill fear by telling stories about how providers will victimize the consumers and offer to save us all if we will only turn control over to them. Consumers are not victims and creating regulation to solve imaginary problems has never worked out.

Contrary to popular belief, equipment belonging to a company does not magically belong to everyone once a lot of people make use of the service it provides.

It is easy to see the stories about the imaginary monsters but much harder to see the great advances and businesses that none of us can see today that never get created because of short-sighted fear such as this.

So the FCC made a deal with a Corporation to reduce competition, and you think the answer is to give the FCC more power over the internet? Regulators get ‘captured’, and so the less power they have the better. Net neutrality legislation/regulation will just be another roadblock for innovators, just as the FCC’s agreement with AT&T was.

Stefankendall: "Net neutrality means simply that all like Internet content must be treated alike and move at the same speed over the network. "

Since the dawn of the internet, the only positive innovation we have seen from ISPs is simply increasing bandwidth. All the other real innovation has come from the endpoints. I see no evidence that ISPs are going to provide any positive benefits from allowing them to censor and filter our communications with these endpoints. We wouldn’t stand for the US gov’t enacting a ‘great firewall of china’, I don’t see why we should allow the ISPs to set up a private version either.

Further, we have utilities for things like water, sewer, electricity, etc. because it becomes a mess if we try to run these basic infrastructures as competitive markets. It just doesn’t work for these industries. Internet connectivity falls into this category as well, most people simply don’t have a competitive ISP market in their area, so arguments that consumers have can vote with their wallet if they don’t like corporate policies are moot.

I have to be honest, I’m a little suprised to see someone such as yourself fall into this one.

Net Neutrality is a manufactured problem that simply doesn’t exist. It is the brain child of Robert McChesney, and has been backed by socialist groups with very overt goals. Now, before you label me as a crazy conspiracy theorist, you should note that even the Wikipedia article you reference cites this as a source:

And here is an article from the WSJ detailing where net neutrality comes from:

So you want a law that says “The owners of the Internet’s wires cannot discriminate.”

Who are you to tell me what I can and cannot do to my wires?

Did this post get mentioned on a libertarian website or something? Weird that the comments to a net neutrality post on a tech blog are running 75%+ pro-ISP.

@Croton No, but it got mentioned at Hacker News. Not sure if any of the comments are from those users, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were. Entrepreneurs are self-starters who don’t believe it’s the government’s role to get involved in or protect things they create, even though corporations are hell-bent on using government to hurt the competition, just like AT&T’s “special rule that was part of their covenant with the federal government”.

The comments aren’t “pro-ISP”, they’re anti-corporatism. Corporations may benefit from the sentiment of these comments, but they’ll benefit more if politicians carve out special rules for them.

The free-market has created the internet we know and love. So, why get special-interest “protection” when there hasn’t been any real threat?

@Patrick Szalapski Your argument would stand if the distinction wasn’t completely artificial. I have no problem with my ISP limiting my bandwidth, which is already the case anyways (we’re three in the house happily living with 40 GB a month); however, them deciding certain bits weight more than others is absurd. Coming next to you, crippled Internet for no technical reason.

I’m confused by the definition of “network neutrality”. Does that mean all bits get treated alike (email, streaming video, VoIP, bittorrent), or all bits of a like class get treated alike?

I’m fine with the concept of giving bit streams different QoS treatment based on their latency, jitter and throughput requirements, so long as the provider doesn’t look at where the bits come from or go to. For example, all VoIP traffic might be queued ahead of bittorrent, but it shouldn’t matter whether the traffic comes from Google Voice, Skype or my home-brew phone app. Is that what you mean, or do you mean no network provider may use traffic shaping or QoS for any reason?

There’s a separate issue of core providers paying edge providers for transit rights, or vice versa, which is complicated enough that I totally don’t understand it. As near as I can tell, that’s something completely different from net neutrality.

@Jeff, looks like most of your commenters have more information on this one than you, this time.

As one said, I too am surprised you fell into this naive trap, designed to grab the imagination of the non-techies.

One VERY important element, absolutely inherent and critical to proper functioning of well-performing networks, is Quality of Service (QoS).
Net Neutrality effectively makes QoS illegal. And that’s really the only thing it can accomplish.

If an ISP really wanted to harm your bandwidth, it would be trivial to do so, and in such a way that it would be impossible to prove it. This is just like it is impossible to optimize metrics on programmers…

Hmm, now you got me thinking, could it be that it’s secretly AT&T that’s behind the Net Neutrality? That’s one way to kill all the VOIP traffic (which depends on QoS, and would be practically impossible - or at least unusable - without it)… And thus get back control of the Bell monopoly…
Really, that’s the only thing that makes any sort of sense (except maybe a soviet plot to destroy our infrastructure).

Please, Jeff, look into this again, and come back with a retraction / correction.

Re: “Fortunately, the good guys are winning. Recent legal challenges to network neutrality have been defeated, at least under US law”: Is Net Neutrality a FCC Trojan Horse?

You don’t need to control the communications link if instead you control the users gateway to that link.

Their is a company who has figured out how to do that. It has designed a product so desirable that users were prepared to give up control over their gateway to their communications link in order to get it.

The company, set up a system which allowed them to choose which third party applications could run on their gateway. And take a 30% cut on any people attempting to make money off producing applications running on the communications gateway.

The company started blocking the most common form of multimedia content available on the communications link, not by blocking the data on the communication link but by not allowing the application used to display that content.

If this company gains full control over our access devices for the communications link, Net Neutrality will be powerless to stop them, because they don’t control the link just our gateway to access it.

This company has a name.

It is Apple

It seems that the people arguing against net neutrality are leaving out a very important point. The organizations that are supplying access to the Internet are also creating their own content networks and would likely charge other content providers for improved bandwidth to their consumers (assuming they don’t compete directly with them, in which case they will be run out of business).

Capitalism only works when there is legitimate competition. I don’t know about you, but there are only two lines coming into my home, the phone line and cable line. Both types of companies have a long track record of monopolistic practices. Considering the cost of creating the infrastructure necessary to provide a new way to access the Intenet without having to use the phone or cable companies wires, I would consider Internet access to be a non-competive service.

The only reasonable way to ensure that capitalism and innovation thrives on the Internet is to ensure that the companies that control our access to the Internet can’t decide what information we get to consume or how we consume it.

Tim Wu offered some interesting insights into the US internet position when speaking about Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN):

“Cable companies are about television. Phone companies, they didn’t like the internet, it kind of came out of nowhere. And so they’re not native-born internet companies, they’re sort of begrudgingly doing this because it’s a certain alternative service and they’re always a little nervous it’ll take over in a way they won’t control,” said Wu. “It actually has taken over.”

The simple version is that cable companies want to kill online video and the telcos want to kill VOIP.

“Unlimited internet” is the real force opposing network neutrality - a cable company or telc can’t use financial means (billing you) to stop you from using their competitor (NetFlix, Skype etc.), so they resort to selective bandwidth throttling. Australia doesn’t have that problem because there has been no such thing as “unlimited” until the last 12-24 months (with several ISPs being taken to court by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission for misusing the term) and our two cable companies, Telstra & Optus, only offer services to a very small proportion of the population.

The people opposed to Net Neutrality talk as if we can just switch ISPs if we don’t like their “bandwidth shaping” policies. I have only two choices, many people have only one.