Norms, networks and neutrality

by Henry on April 24, 2006

Kevin Drum complains that

I’ve been trying to understand this whole “net neutrality” thing and I’ve failed utterly. I just can’t figure out the underlying issues.

Duncan Black tells him not to be an idiot. But Kevin has a point – the network neutrality debate isn’t quite the no-brainer that it might seem to be at first. There are different kinds of discrimination that might occur, some of which are straightforward to regulate, some not so straightforward. See further, Ed Felten’s two part primer on the topic, and his two follow up posts on the topic, which provide by far the most accessible overview of the underlying technical issues that I’ve read. One very interesting argument which emerges from Felten’s series of posts is his suggestion that a move away from network neutrality might have damaging consequences for the sociological underpinnings of cooperation over resource sharing.

[endpoint computers] deduce that the network is congested. So they will re-send the dropped packet, but in response to the probable congestion they will slow down the rate at which they transmit data. Once enough packets are dropped, and enough computers … One interesting aspect of this system is that it is voluntary — the system relies on endpoint computers to slow down when they see congestion, but nothing forces them to do so. … there is an incentive to defect from this deal. Suppose that you defect — when your packets are dropped you keep on sending packets as fast as you can … By ignoring the congestion signals you are getting more than your fair share of the network. … Despite the incentive to defect, most people keep the deal by using networking software that slows down as expected in response to congestion. … there is a sort of social contract … One of the reasons users comply, I think, is a sense of fairness. If I believe that the burdens of congestion control fall pretty equally on everybody, at least in the long run, then it seems fair to me to slow down my own transmissions when my turn comes. … But now suppose that the network starts singling out some people and dropping their packets first. … the incentive for those machines and applications to stick to the social contract and do their share to control congestion, will weaken. Will this lead to a wave of defections that destroys the Net? Probably not, but I can’t be sure. … We should also listen to the broader lesson of this analysis. If the network discriminates, users and applications will react by changing their behavior. Discrimination will have secondary effects, and we had better think carefully about what they will be.

This seems to me to make sound sociological sense – one of the reasons that the system works as well as it does at the moment is because there’s a set of norms governing behaviour, and a sense that the costs of obeying these norms are, to use Robert Sugden’s terminology, cross-cutting so that they fall on everyone equally in the long run (Sugden has an apposite analysis of norms governing which car crosses a one lane bridge first). If we undermine the basic sense of rough equality in burden sharing, we’re likely going to weaken (and possibly destroy) these norms. There’s a general (and in this case, I believe entirely sound) sense that network neutrality has worked to date, and that we shouldn’t try to fix it. Felten’s analysis helps us move beyond this intuition to a more coherent analysis of what the costs of regulatory change might be.

Update: Duncan replies here, saying “Henry says I’m wrong to think this net neutrality issue is a no-brainer and then proceeds to outline one of the many reasons it is, in fact, a no-brainer.” This misses the point I was trying to make. Even assuming that you agree that network neutrality is a good and wonderful principle of regulation, it’s not clear how best to regulate so as to make sure that it’s achieved in practice. Felten makes this clear in his discussion of the tricky ways that telcos might undermine network neutrality through apparently neutral technical decisions. This makes for complicated regulatory problems. Two pertinent examples. First, the DoJ action against Microsoft – I suspect that most people other than the hacks and the Chicago school true believers now accept that Microsoft was a bloated and abusive monopoly – but that’s the easy part. Figuring out how to regulate it successfully is considerably harder; there aren’t any very obvious solutions (my preferred solution would have been the Zittrain one but it would have turned the copyright system upside down). Second, efforts to unbundle the local loop in Europe – i.e. to allow new entrants to compete effectively with dominant telcos in providing broadband. This was great in principle – but in practice proved more or less impossible to implement (the dominant telcos proved adept at exploiting loopholes in the regulation to hobble their competitors). Finally, the whole point of the Felten argument that I quoted from is that the effects on exchange of information on the Internet aren’t a no-brainer. We can predict that changing the status quo will have consequences for actors’ behaviour, and we can make a good guess that the consequences will be negative. But without working through these consequences carefully, we don’t know what’s likely to happen. The Felten argument happens to accord with my intuitions on this – but my (and others’) intuitions have been known to be wrong on the past, which is why working through the arguments is important. And Felten’s argument was surely non-obvious to me before I read it – perhaps because I’m an idiot too. None of this detracts from the fact that the legislation under discussion is almost certainly a revolting give-away to lobbyists – but the underlying issues involved make for complicated debates and complications of implementation.

{ 50 comments }

1

Atrios 04.24.06 at 10:55 pm

yeah, exactly, that’s why it’s a no brainer.

2

neil 04.24.06 at 11:41 pm

Obviously Kevin doesn’t realize that the point of the blogosphere is not to be right, but to be right before everyone else. You’d think he’d have figured that out after the whole Iraq war thing.

3

Iron Lungfish 04.24.06 at 11:53 pm

the point of the blogosphere is not to be right, but to be right before everyone else

I thought the point of the blogosphere was to generate copious single-sentence posts which in turn generate hundreds of meandering, bilious comments with little if any relationship to the posts which theoretically inspired them.

4

Quo Vadis 04.25.06 at 12:32 am

I think the technical details underscore the difficulty guaranteeing net neutrality, but for most people they only obscure the issue.

The question as I understand it is better stated more simply: Should providers of Internet access (ISPs) be permitted to selectively control the access their customers have to Internet-based services (say, Vonage or peer-to-peer networks)?

There are many reasons an ISP might want to do this: they may charge service vendors to handle their content, or they may want to discourage the use of high bandwidth services like p-to-p filesharing services to improve network performance for other purposes.

5

Jim Harrison 04.25.06 at 1:38 am

What’s idiotic is assuming that these issues are technical questions and that everybody is acting with good will.

6

Pat 04.25.06 at 2:10 am

So lets say the a group of end computers defect first. What then?

7

Jin 04.25.06 at 2:53 am

“two” links to the Duncan Black post again. The URL to the first part of the Felton explanation in case anyone was looking:

http://www.freedom-to-tinker.com/?p=983

8

bad Jim 04.25.06 at 3:47 am

By preference I’m a consumer of text. I’m not at all certain that consumers of more demanding media, or their providers, shouldn’t pay more, to the extent that bandwidth is a limited resource.

When the company which provides my internet connection last forced me to upgrade, they enticed me with the offer of a faster connection, which I declined, since the latency of the sites I visit has a much larger effect on my experience than their throughput. But then I’m a textual deviate.

If your preferences run to music or movie downloads, it’s entirely reasonable to charge you a premium proportionate to your impatience, so long as bandwidth is fixed and the game is zero-sum.

So long as there is dark fiber, though, is this the case? Are we out of unused capacity yet?

9

Cian 04.25.06 at 4:08 am

There’s two issues here, that the ISPs seem to be deliberately conflating. Filtering according to of application is reasonable, so long as its in the contract (most already do this to some degree). Filtering according to who the destination is – is not reasonable. It would allow ISPs to effectively charge websites, internet phone companies, etc – a tax for their customers not getting crappy service. It would allow ISPs to give their own voIp serviec a better quality over the competition, and so forth. Its a mechanism for stifling competition.

10

Phoenix Woman 04.25.06 at 7:29 am

This is all about the telcos not wanting to upgrade their data pipes, even though the other parts of the wired world are leaving us in their 100Mbps dust (and in places like Japan are getting it for about $40/month).

As has already been pointed out, note that the cable companies aren’t with the telcos on this. That’s because their pipes (which happen to be cables) can handle the demand already. The telcos’ data pipes can’t, and they don’t want to spend the money needed to upgrade them.

11

liberal 04.25.06 at 7:44 am

bad jim wrote, By preference I’m a consumer of text. I’m not at all certain that consumers of more demanding media, or their providers, shouldn’t pay more, to the extent that bandwidth is a limited resource.

I’m also almost entirely a consumer of text.

But I don’t understand your comment. Why not just charge higher rates for people who use more bandwidth?

I understand your point about ISPs forcing people to upgrade, but that has to do with unregulated monopoly/oligopoly power.

12

crack 04.25.06 at 8:02 am

@Cian
Filtering by application is how ISPs already give their VOIP better quality.

I don’t think ISPs should care about the bit destination.
I do think they should be able fight amongst themselves about the costs of carrying each others traffic.

13

Henry 04.25.06 at 8:05 am

jin – thanks

jim harrison – where do I say or even imply anything along the lines that you’re saying here? To say that you have to have some understanding of the technical issues to get what is happening isn’t to say that it is a non-political issue, or that people don’t have interests. It’s to say that you have to have some understanding of the technology if you want to understand the politics.

14

Henry 04.25.06 at 8:09 am

duncan – as Ed Felten shows, network neutrality is in fact pretty complicated in the details. Let me quote Ed.

bq. This most challenging possibility, from a policy standpoint, (still assuming that the jitter problem exists) is that Comcast didn’t take any obvious steps to cause the problem but is happy that it exists, and is subtly managing its network in a way that fosters jitter. Network management is complicated, and many management decisions could impact jitter one way or the other. A network provider who wants to cause high jitter can do so, and might have pretextual excuses for all of the steps it takes. Can regulators tell this kind of strategem apart from fair and justified engineering decisions that happen to cause a little temporary jitter?

Your suggestions for how to deal with this are?

15

Steve LaBonne 04.25.06 at 8:17 am

With respect I think you’re missing Duncan’s very simple point, which he clearly enunciated on Eschaton. Whatever the theoretical merits of making this or that change in the status quo, the bunch currently in power in Washinton must NOT be trusted with doing anything at all. These guys could turn motherhood and apple pie into just another K street scam.

16

Soullite 04.25.06 at 8:20 am

Umm, given everything you’ve just written and obviously read, how is this not a no-brainer?. You’ll have christian groups boycotting networks to try and shut down porn sites. you’ll have every interest group in the country pressuring every network to ban such and such sites. This will completely and utterly destroy the internet as any sort of communication tool, public forum, gigantic shopping mall.
Give people the power to exclude and they will exclude. this site won’t be covered by most networks. It will be left out because it’s liberal and bad for business. You say to move beyond the obviousness that the current system works. but why? If it works (and it obviously does or it wouldn’t have exploded over the last decade into most homes in this country) then don’t fuck it up by altering it and allowing human biases into the mix.

17

jerry 04.25.06 at 8:21 am

I don’t think Phoenix Woman could be more wrong. I understand her argument, but after six years of BushCo, I don’t believe this has anything to do with any technical reason of any sort.

This is another industry realizing now is the time now is the Administration that will let them upset the apple cart and steal the apples.

When all this net neutrality was created, teh Intarweb was solely for academics and the military. There was no business. The NII was teh Intarweb “done right” and it failed. This is industry’s last chance to get the whole corporate stealing thing correct for the Internet. And that is all it is.

But Phoenix Woman, Drinking Liberally meets at My Florist Cafe now…. Come on over!

18

citizen k 04.25.06 at 8:27 am

Geez, I don’t understand the hostility here. Why the deregulation of AM radio has turned it into a vast free market of ideas where anyone from Michael Savage to Rush to Imus gets to debate policy and theology ranges from Jesus-With-An-Axe to Jesus-With-Big-Fucking-Rock. Obvously, the market ensures that the political and theological concerns of the bandwidth owners and advertisers are separated completely from the choice of content.

I can’t wait to be able to choose between jesus.com and praise-the-leader.net! And think of the advertising competition.

19

paul 04.25.06 at 8:37 am

One of the things implicit in the Felten quote above, but not really thoroughly explored, is that cheating on various kinds of network agreements can be relatively easy to do but very difficult to prove in a rigorous fashion. You might have a moral certainty that someone is treating your packets (or your application’s packets) unfairly, but who knows — maybe it’s just the luck of the draw that the links established for their affiliated VOIP company are mostly reliable and the ones established for competitors are mostly un-. As long as there’s pseudorandom behavior and susceptibility to interference from other, unknown traffic, there’s always a chance they’re not cheating, or just incompetent.

If legislation effectively makes cheating the norm, I think you’ll see an explosion of software using tricks to get its packets through in the best possible order, without regard to effects on the rest of the net, or perhaps even with intention to degrade competing servers or applications. It could be rather disruptive. Most of the techniques have been known for years, but social pressure and fear of retaliation have kept them out of general use. Once the free-for-all starts, it could be difficult to stop.

(And yes, I know, film at 11)

20

Kay 04.25.06 at 8:50 am

There are almost always ways to improve working but imperfect systems and programs. Sure. But why even have this discussion now?

Until the last 4 years or so, I was not generally a “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” person. This congress and this executive have turned me into one. They have managed, in every single instance, to turn every possibility for improvement into a debacle.

There may well be some way to actually improve the internet but I am not going to sit by and let this group of corrupt incompetents push through the first idea that the telecos’ K Street buddies dreamed up.

I think it must be killed for now – simply killed. I don’t think we have the option of trying to debate the finer points here. Trying to argue out the details and assure that all the required fine tuning actually makes it into the law will be a major and time consuming effort under the very best of circumstances. This is certainly not that time.

21

perianwyr 04.25.06 at 8:53 am

Guys, the hilarity of all this is evident when you look at the map of the internet:

http://research.lumeta.com/ches/map/

One thing you will notice about cable networks: they are isolated. Phone company or pure data networks are more central, and often tie the cable networks together. Oh, and THOSE guys are going to cooperate, rather than rape each other. Oh, you must have been sleeping for the last ten years.

22

jayackroyd 04.25.06 at 9:04 am

Why not just charge higher rates for people who use more bandwidth?

That’s how it works now. I have a 3MB DSL with covad. I pay more than my next door neighbor who has a 768K line with Verizon. (Although my packets travel over Verizon copper and fiber before reaching a covad DNS server.) And, of course, the backbone providers charge ISPs for moving their packets. The more packets, the more they pay.

The point of the linked article is that net neutrality implicitly assumes the continuation of the internet culture driven by cooperation and the sharing of slack resources. We can no longer make that assumption. But the solution is not to authorize packet discrimination for a price. Even if cheating is possible and hard to prove, we want it to be regarded as cheating.

Myself, I think the federal government should partner with Google, light up some dark fiber and make itself a backbone provider that operates without traffic charges. The economic benefits of an open internet dwarf the costs this would entail.

I happen to think the telcos won’t be able to do this. The internet is too intertwined with too many aspects of running American businesses.

On the commenters who’ve said they don’t care; they just want to get served text, it’s worth noting that 2000 characters of text at, say, the Washington Post is accompanied by substantially more content than that, in the form of advertisements

23

lemuel pitkin 04.25.06 at 9:07 am

My understanding of this is at the third-grade level: ISPs want to discriminate between different types of internet content. Current law says they can’t. R’s have proposed legislation changing it so they can.

So Henry (or anyone else), which technical details make opposing this not a no-brainer?

(Also, why do you refer to Atrios as Duncan Black? I always thought it was courteous to call people by the name they preferred.)

24

R.Porrofatto 04.25.06 at 9:07 am

I don’t know about the technical issues but this sounds to me like nothing more than a corporate protection racket. “Uhh, you got a nice site here… hate to see it… you know… slow down, hmm? Your customers might not like it… specially since the site you’re competin’ with is stilll nice and fast—they know how to show some respect. So whadda YOU gonna do to protect yourself?”

How is this not extortion?

As to consumers paying a premium for items that require more bandwidth, they already do. DSL and cable costs such a premium for faster, broader bandwidth service. From what I’ve read this new objective would undermine faster access that consumers already pay for by extorted favoritism on the transmission end.

25

Henry 04.25.06 at 9:12 am

bq. So Henry (or anyone else), which technical details make opposing this not a no-brainer?

bq. (Also, why do you refer to Atrios as Duncan Black? I always thought it was courteous to call people by the name they preferred.)

Lemuel – what I’m trying to say here is not that the legislation isn’t bad – I’m pretty sure that it is. But that the whole idea of network neutrality is in fact pretty complicated in practice, which is, I suspect, at the heart of Kevin’s uncertainty.

I probably refer to Duncan by his given name because I’ve met him – it would feel weird for me to refer to him as Atrios. But I’m happy to call him Atrios if this is discourteous in some fashion (my sense is that the rules of netiquette on this aren’t very well worked out).

26

Nathan 04.25.06 at 9:28 am

The whole point of this is to maintain the status quo. Big telcos want to change it and so it has been necessary to codify the principles of the net. It is quite simple. The bill Ron Wyden introduced boiled down to (as reported on Cnet):
Any content provider must be awarded bandwidth “with equivalent or better capability than the provider extends to itself or affiliated parties, and without the imposition of any charge.”
Or how about this:
“No packet may be discriminated against based on origin.”
Enforcement is a technical issue, but it isn’t too hard. Is a client receiving packets from a content provider as efficiently as the content from the service provider? If not, it is possible they are violating the law. Investigation ensues.

Obviously, the enforcement details need to be worked out (you don’t want everyone calling the FCC because their Internet connection “seems slow”), but they are hardly intractable.

27

Cranky Observer 04.25.06 at 9:34 am

Henry,
Simple question: have you ever negotiated a large-scale deal with a telco, or managed a large contract with a telco? Telecom or datacomm?

If not, I suggest you go do that for a year or two. I think your perspective will change a bit.

In any case, you yourself have not responsed to Atrios’ point: we aren’t discussing a theoretical Internet regulation bill being developed by a thinktank headed by Al Gore – we are discussing a real bill being rammed through Congress by very large contributors to Radical Republican politicians. That will be a very concrete bill with very concrete consequences, and given the backers of the bill none of those consequences will be good for the consumer or small web site owner.

Cranky

28

Iron Lungfish 04.25.06 at 9:43 am

Duncan’s very simple point, which he clearly enunciated on Eschaton.

Sorry, but Duncan clearly enunciated nothing on Eschaton, as per his custom. He responded with what could be charitably called a petty schoolyard taunt, but Duncan’s post was so slight, and Kevin’s so innocuous, that one would have to read quite a bit of material beyond the posts in question to glean any motivation for Atrios’s post beyond the urge to reiterate that Kevin Drum is onh his shit list.

Your own response (“Whatever the theoretical merits of making this or that change in the status quo, the bunch currently in power in Washinton must NOT be trusted with doing anything at all. These guys could turn motherhood and apple pie into just another K street scam”), a mere two sentences, enunciated vastly more concerning the subject than Atrios’s, which served more to articulate some grudge with Kevin Drum than anything else.

29

Outlandish 04.25.06 at 9:47 am

The stated goal of the major telcos is to squeeze more profite from their assets. They need this regulation to do so without fear of legal reprisal. If they do this, it will manifestly retard innovation online.

Engineers like Felton (and to a lesser extent quasi-geeks like Marc Cuban) like to imagine fantasy techical scenarios in which a “teired” internet structure would allow for more effective and efficient use of network resources.

This is useful idiocy for the 20th-century fatbacks in the telco biz. Felton ignores the pressing realities of the business environment, and indeed seems to be engaging in his own little soviet-style exercise in central planning. Which is extacly how the internet doesn’t work. The rapid growth, innovation and adoption of the internet and related technologies has occurred only because it represents an open end-to-end system.

This is an important, and in contemporary times almost unique environment, one which is a major driver of economic growth, civic organization, community building, communication and self-expression. Let’s keep it that way.

30

Murphy’s Illiterate Grandfather 04.25.06 at 9:53 am

It is a no brainer.

The same “different kinds of discrimination” exist in equities trading. That does not mean that ‘market timing’ or ‘late trading’ should get Congress’ seal of approval. And THat is what the telcoms are seeking, Congress’ OK to pick our pocket (and in the process quite the rabble getting the sheeple all worked up usin’ teh fancy Intrawebs!)

31

NotThatMo 04.25.06 at 9:59 am

I am surprised to find support here for companies running to Congress to force a business model that consumers have already tried and rejected. People did not like getting the internet filtered through AOL, Compuserve, etc. They chose to buy unfiltered content instead. But the telcos prefer to sell fancy packages where they are making money on both ends. So they are whining, pleading that the government require customers to purchase their undesirable products.

What is also being ignored here is that broadband is a monopoly service. The telcos are also working to ban municipalities from setting up their own networks.

They also have been collecting fees from consumers to pay for the upgrade to broadband. They have not been upgrading services, pocketing the money instead. Why should they now be allowed to claim that they need to be able to charge content providers to pay for the upgrade that their customers have already bankrolled?

Why can’t I buy broadband service anywhere in America that equals what is available in Tokyo?

32

Steve LaBonne 04.25.06 at 10:01 am

lungfish, I thought the following by Atrios was very clear indeed:

More generally this is a telco lobbyist written bill being run through a Republican congress without much public discussion pushed by people like known steward of the public good Dick Armey.

I’m sure one can concoct some technical explanations why some fantasy change to net neutrality could be a good thing, but that’s not what’s going to happen here. One could also propose some fantasy change to Social Security which could be a good thing, but all that does is play into the hands of those who will, in fact, be making the change. And killing the internets.

33

Iron Lungfish 04.25.06 at 10:09 am

In that post yes, which was posted several hours after Henry’s, but within the context of this discussion and his initial reply to Kevin Drum he gave a much more characteristic “don’t be an idiot.”

34

Henry 04.25.06 at 10:14 am

cranky, notthatmo etc – could you point to the place in the post where I state, imply or even hint at support for the dominant telcos? My point isn’t that network neutrality is a bad thing – on that I’m fully in agreement with Duncan. Nor that the excuses of the telcos for not rolling out good broadband aren’t ridiculous. Nor that Armey’s bill isn’t evil – cranky, you appear not to have noticed the update to the post. It’s that given the self-interest of telcos, and the difficulties of regulating in this area, achieving actual network neutrality is a lot harder than it seems.

35

lemuel pitkin 04.25.06 at 10:40 am

So I’m taking it that this is a no-brainer politically, but an interesting question from a policy standpoint. Sort of like “should we invade Iraq” vs. “when are humanitarian interventions justified”.

36

BigMacAttack 04.25.06 at 10:44 am

Look, Henry it is very simple, Republicans are scumbag fucktards and anyone who doesn’t call them scumbag fucktards is an idiot and/or a wanker. We can discuss policy details later, after we win back congress. And anyone discussing policy, instead of calling Republicans scumbagging fucktards, is getting in the way of us winning back congress, and is an idiot.

So, for now, in response to any proposed bill, the only proper response is a short post that goes someting like this -

Look at what those scumbagging fucktards are up to now!

Any deviation from the above approach means you are an idiotic tool of the fucktarding scumbags.

My thoughts as a scumbagging fucktarder are –

Theoretically service providers need to discriminate between high(and mid and low) tier customers. When I am downloading porn, and a high burst comes through, my packets priority can be downgraded, but the packets of another high tier customer using this VOIP thingy would need to be given priority.

Otherwise everyone would need to pay more for service or service would suck for services prone to having problems with this jitter thingy.

Any way after reading ‘everything’ that is how it seems to me.

So theoretically it seems like there is a legitimate need to ignore net nuetrality. But maybe I am wrong?

What incentive does Comcast have for screwing VOIP users? Do they provide phone service over their lines?

Maybe Cian could expand on her/his post above?

37

jet 04.25.06 at 11:02 am

As long as they only fiter by packet type and not packet destination, there will always be ways around their “tiered” internet. But the idea of a tiered internet is total crap…….bastards.

38

perianwyr 04.25.06 at 11:18 am


Theoretically service providers need to discriminate between high(and mid and low) tier customers. When I am downloading porn, and a high burst comes through, my packets priority can be downgraded, but the packets of another high tier customer using this VOIP thingy would need to be given priority.

This is not what is being talked about here. You are confusing the smoke with the fire.

What is being talked about is services being given provision based on their relationship with the provider, which is not a particularly valuable thing unless you are intentionally downgrading the service of others.

39

Cian 04.25.06 at 11:26 am

Obviously I wasn’t very clear in my previous post.

Being British I haven’t been following this debate particularly closely, so I may have missed some of the details.

There are different types of filtering.
There is filtering at the customer level. In practice this comes down to making sure that bandwith hungry applications (filesharing mostly) do not suck up all the bandwidth. The main problem is applications which are constantly downloading at peak rates (e.g. bittorrent) – as opposed to web surfing/email which download in bursts at peak rate. ISP accounting assumes mostly the latter kind of use and so charge customer’s accordingly (and purchase bandwidth upstream accordingly). Most ISPs will therefore filter the kind of packets, so that they don’t swamp the connection. Assuming the contract allows it, this is perfectly legal. Its a problem caused by disruptive new technologies – but one which would sort itself out in a real, government enforced, free market (like the UK).

Incidentally, voIP is not a heavy user of bandwidth (that’s the point) – and ISPs who filter/slow voIP packets are doing so to protect their own monopolies as telcos.

A second type of filtering is far more dangerous. That is when the packet is filtered according to destination. Technologically there is nothing stopping ISPs from doing this, and there may not be anything legally stopping them from doing this. However, it would seriously undermine the internet as we know it. Currently, ISPs in the US (but not in “socialist” Europe) largely control access to the internet in their local areas via broadband (where there is competition, it tends to be quite limited). However once you’re on the internet, you can access anything. That includes internet telephony, cinema download sites, apple iTunes and the Washingon Times for all your Moonie needs. However, if ISPs were able to filter packets, they could control which sites and applications go priority access. This would mean one of two things:
1) They would give priority to their own applications (TimeWarner film downloads, BellSouth VoIP), killing competition.
2) They would charge destinations a tax for “priority” access.

Needless to say, the success of the internet has been due to unfiltered, unmediated access. This would kill it. This is about the government interfering in the market place – ironically something Republicans claim to be against.

Now ISPs will claim that this is about them being able to discriminate between low and high-tier customers. As far as I can see this is bullshit. There are mechanisms in place for them to be able to do this at the moment (corporations use these all the time for their own virtual private networks). Offering guarantees of service for certain kinds of service is one thing. Deliberating reducing quality is another thing entirely.

However this should be something which is placed on top of the existing system. The current system works. It doesn’t work properly, and ISPs have all kinds of problems purchasing the right amount of bandwidth, but it works and these problems are no different to those facing other kinds of private company. I fail to see why large incumbent companies should be protected from risk.

40

BigMacAttack 04.25.06 at 11:32 am

Perianwyr,

That isn’t what I got from Ed’s posts.

‘Scenarios for network discrimination typically involve an Internet Service Provider (ISP) who looks at users’ traffic and imposes delays or other performance penalties on certain types of traffic. To do this, the ISP must be able to tell the targeted data packets apart from ordinary packets. For example, if the ISP wants to penalize VoIP (Internet telephony) traffic, it must be able to distinguish VoIP packets from ordinary packets.’

But you are probably right and I am probably wrong. I think Cian tried to tell me(everyone) that above.

‘Filtering according to who the destination is – is not reasonable.’

It is ok to give my IP priority(I pay for more service) and my packet type priority but it is not ok not give my destination priority? Because that is how you would – services being given provision based on their relationship with the provider?

Do I have it right now?

41

Drew Thaler 04.25.06 at 11:38 am

There are arguments on both sides, but the biggest one to me is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. This shouldn’t be done without extensive review and RFC discussion among the people that are still out there designing the net. Certainly not secretively and with the rails greased by the telco money.

On the bright side it’s virtually impossible to break the net permanently. The worst Congress could do is totally fumble the US’s current role as technological leader.

42

citizen k 04.25.06 at 11:38 am

“What incentive does Comcast have for screwing VOIP users? Do they provide phone service over their lines?”

Suppose for a moment you ran Comcast and your objective was to maximize revenues. Your customers are paying Vonnage and even Skype to carry voice over your monopoly cables. You go to Vonnage and say, “gimme a share or I will make the same offer to Skype or even run Comtron-VOIP myself” or you go to the local telco monopoly and say, “gimme and i will impose a surcharge on VOIP packets on my wires” or ….

The cable companies and telcos have government imposed monopolies on last mile. Back in the days when the US was a raving left-wing socialist state, the evil feds required such monopolists to be “common carriers” so that they would not be tempted to play such games. But now that we live under the Leader in a Rich People’s Republic, we know that interfering with the power of monopilies is BAD and we accept happily whatever deals they offer us and ask for another.

43

Cian 04.25.06 at 11:40 am

Yes – its okay to give both the IP and packet type priority.

for example, you don’t particularly care how long HTTP packets take to arrive, as its non real time. You do care how long it takes for media streaming packets to arrive, as if they arrive too late they are useless. And if you were downloading a particicularly large file (for example a DVD) – you might be willing to pay extra to have it download by a particular time.

However, giving priority to http://www.cnn.com packets would quickly lead to corruption. (as it would cnn who’d pay for it, rather than the consumer).

44

Tom - Daai Tou Laam 04.25.06 at 12:41 pm

Second, efforts to unbundle the local loop in Europe – i.e. to allow new entrants to compete effectively with dominant telcos in providing broadband. This was great in principle – but in practice proved more or less impossible to implement (the dominant telcos proved adept at exploiting loopholes in the regulation to hobble their competitors).

That was also the case in the US during the time of enforced line sharing.

Strangely in Hong Kong, perhaps due to a regulatory organisation unwilling to put up with ILEC shenanigans, line sharing was quite successful. Broadband penetration is one of the highest in the world, data pipes are cheap, and quickly installed. {Of course, now that the market has been grown to saturation, the ILEC tycoons, Li Ka-shing and son Richard, have gone back to their paid politicians and had line sharing eliminated to drive the mature market back in to the monopolies’ hands.}

45

Doug 04.25.06 at 3:02 pm

#35 seems to get it right that Henry and the author of Eschaton are talking past each other, though probably in basic agreement: The current bill should have a spike driven through its heart at a crossroads, and anything similar proposed by the current Congress should be viewed with deepest suspicion. On the other hand, keeping the status quo of rough consensus and a running internet is not as easy as it appears at first glance.

Fair summary?

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goatchowder 04.26.06 at 1:24 am

I really wish Jon Postel were still alive.

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Cian 04.26.06 at 5:38 am

“Second, efforts to unbundle the local loop in Europe – i.e. to allow new entrants to compete effectively with dominant telcos in providing broadband. This was great in principle – but in practice proved more or less impossible to implement (the dominant telcos proved adept at exploiting loopholes in the regulation to hobble their competitors).”

I can’t speak for the rest of Europe, but in Britain it’s worked pretty well. You just need an aggressive regulator. Its not perfect, but then what is.

The fact that running the internet with the present system is difficult is not an argument for changing it. Its a complicated system – but one which works.

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John Rice 04.26.06 at 8:06 pm

The concept of filtering based on content (i.e. video, text, etc.) makes sense and would allow for a more efficient use of bandwidth. I believe that it providers started filtering based on destination there would be a customer revolt. Internet service providers have no incentive to prevent their subscribers from viewing desired content. Consumers are more savvy than our tired, old politicians think. If one provider blocks or slows specific sites, that subscriber can easily pick another provider. The ability of customers to freely switch internet providers prevents the need for added regulations.

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tpwk 04.26.06 at 11:07 pm

I think the technical complexity of this issue cautions against allowing the government to intimately regulated. A commenter above worries that people will lobby providers to ban this or that website. As it stands, companies do not have the power to ban sites, with or without net neutrality regulation. The government, on the other hand… Personally, I’ve seen enough evidence that I want to government to stay out of this issue.

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flounce 04.27.06 at 6:52 am

Exactly right, twpk. I fear big government’s regulation far more than I do the telcos and the market…

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