Norms, networks and neutrality

by Henry Farrell on April 24, 2006

“Kevin Drum”: complains that

bq. 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.

bq. [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.

Is Teaching Patriotism Justified?

by Harry on April 24, 2006

Peter Levine has a post objecting to my argument in chapter 6 of On Education that schools should not teach patriotism. Peter makes the case for patriotism (understood as “love of country”) being a legitimate feeling in itself, and that it has various instrumental benefits, in particular that it encourages citizens to participate in the affairs of the nation, and that it can play an important role in moral development, training the sentiments to attach beyond the confines of those we are immediately attached to, and therefore helping our characters to learn the virtue of impartial justice. (See also, Sigal Ben-Porath’s nice new book, Citizenship under Fire : Democratic Education in Times of Conflict ). He then tackles two of the main arguments I make against teaching patriotism; that if its agencies promote love of country the state interferes with the development of authentic, legitimacy-producing, consent, and that using, say, History teaching to produce patriotism can conflict with other more academic goals of History teaching (like, e.g., getting the students to learn the truth!). He points out that learning the full truth about Rosa Parks’s involvement in politics can increase one’s sense of attachment to the nation (as it did his) and describes an interesting hands on history project with black students in a local school which was aimed in part at cementing their attachment to their own communities.

Peter’s post is lengthy (if concise), and rather than reproduce it I’ll assume that readers have followed the link and done the reading. Here’s my response:

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Lime Pickle and Peanut Butter Sandwiches.

by Harry on April 24, 2006

A long promised post for one of our readers in a bi-national marriage.

Use a soft whole grain bread. Spread crunchy natural peanut butter thickly on the first slice. Spread a sweet or medium lime pickle thinly on top. Cover with the second slice of bread.

This is an incredibly annoying recipe because I have been unable to find a really good peanut butter anywhere in the UK, or a really good mild lime pickle in the US (Pataks is occasionally find-able here, but frankly nothing beats Marks and Spencer). Still, if you can find the ingredients, enjoy it.

Update: if, like jr, you’ve no idea what lime pickle is, here’s a recipe and picture. Now it occurs to me I could make my own; has anyone reverse-engineered the Marks and Spencer recipe?

Wikipedian Utterances of the Gawping Soul

by Henry Farrell on April 24, 2006

Two opinions on wikis last weekend.

From the former editor of _Encyclopedia Britannica_, quoted in the “Economist”: (sub required).

bq. Contrast that with the joyful reaction of Wikipedia’s detractors to Brian Chase, the dodgy biographer (whose article was literally one in a million). Somebody who reads Wikipedia is “rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom,” says Mr McHenry, Britannica’s former editor. “It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him.”

From an aside in “John Clute’s review”: of Theodora Goss’s new book of short stories.

bq. It is something that may derive from the tendency of mutants to emit blog gas, for the net culture they live in has no internal or external censors, no _captaining_ of the unsorted untested wikipedian utterances of the gawping soul, no place for the buck to stop.

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New blog

by Chris Bertram on April 24, 2006

My former student Colin Farrelly (now Assistant Professor at the University of Waterloo) has started a blog — “In Search of Enlightenment”: — go visit!

Worst President in US history?

by Chris Bertram on April 24, 2006

In Rolling Stone, Princeton historian “Sean Wilentz makes the case”: for judging George W. Bush the worst President in US history:

bq. The president came to office calling himself “a uniter, not a divider” and promising to soften the acrimonious tone in Washington. He has had two enormous opportunities to fulfill those pledges: first, in the noisy aftermath of his controversial election in 2000, and, even more, after the attacks of September 11th, when the nation pulled behind him as it has supported no other president in living memory. Yet under both sets of historically unprecedented circumstances, Bush has chosen to act in ways that have left the country less united and more divided, less conciliatory and more acrimonious — much like James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson and Herbert Hoover before him. And, like those three predecessors, Bush has done so in the service of a rigid ideology that permits no deviation and refuses to adjust to changing realities. Buchanan failed the test of Southern secession, Johnson failed in the face of Reconstruction, and Hoover failed in the face of the Great Depression. Bush has failed to confront his own failures in both domestic and international affairs, above all in his ill-conceived responses to radical Islamic terrorism. Having confused steely resolve with what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “a foolish consistency . . . adored by little statesmen,” Bush has become entangled in tragedies of his own making, compounding those visited upon the country by outside forces.

File under “who knew”?

by Daniel on April 24, 2006

Surprising news:

The Objectivist Academic Centre of the Ayn Rand Institute now offers accredited courses for which college credits can be granted.

Very very surprising news:

The financial support arrangements and tuition waivers are rather generous.

If any CT readers want to apply for a grant from the Ayn Rand Institute the form is here. Although I suppose this may be a trick; if you apply for a grant you thereby prove yourself to be unworthy of one.

(PS: If any other editors change the category of this post away from “Philosophy” I will throw a hissy fit of epic and heroic, life-affirming proportions.)