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Neutral on Net Neutrality

Stephen Green is torn on the issue of net neutrality, with his libertarian side thinking Internet service providers ought to be able to “charge what the traffic will bear” on their equipment while his conservative side preferring to preserve a status quo that works well to an unknown future.

I’m on the same fence but do agree with Mark Cuban that certain types of information might oughta be less privileged than others. Most obviously, things like torrents. To the extent bandwidth is limited, it makes sense to prioritize email and search, things essential for modern life, over movie downloads and other frivolities that threaten to clog the pipes.

The Post Office has charged differing rates and promised different delivery priority for a whole variety of mail for as long as I can remember. 1st Class letters are treated differently than 4th class bulk rate magazines and those willing to pay extra can get expedited service.   I’m not entirely sure why that model couldn’t be applied to the ‘net.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Private industry didn’t develop the Internet. It was developed by the government. When did predatory pricing by government-established monopolies become libertarian.

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  2. The issues here are more complex and less obvious than generally presented by even serious minded folk. I was at the CTIA meeting earlier this month where FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski set forth his views on net neutrality followed by several other industry speakers who were polite but unequivocally livid about what is being proposed. Ralph de la Vega had an impressive presentation on just how open and free the market in the US is compared to everywhere else in the world as a direct result of how open and free the market is and how the heavy hand of regulation is going to reduce competition and capabilities.

    Wireless bandwidth is scarce and limited in ways that wired bandwidth isn’t. Shockingly so once you become familiar with the technology. That is a fact of life and physics that necessarily means you can’t think about and treat wireless communication the same way as broadband dsl access through your cable or phone lines, much less the higher capacity dedicated circuits that most of us use in our professional environments. To be clear, net neutrality is really a battle about wireless Internet access even though you will see smoke occasionally about all Internet access, because the future is wireless for most folks.

    On top of that there seems to be a changing of the rules after the last spectrum auction that rightly, IMHO, has some of the buyers rather incensed right now. I won’t bore you with all the details here.

    To be fair, Mr. Genachowski has an excellent grasp of the issues. He also seems to be a big proponent of the very visible hand of government to control and manage the technology. Of course, the question becomes to control and manage the technology for the benefit of whom?

    Dr. Schuler, who invented the Internet frankly doesn’t mean much in this discussion. The Internet had been invented by some DARPA folks but didn’t really become “the Internet” until the first browser (MOSAIC) made it more useful and accessible to the general public. This also required an explosion in the quantity and capability of personal computers, which has little to do with who invented the Internet, but I digress.

    In reality, what you see as the world wide web is composed of a vast collection of servers owned by government and private individuals and entities that provide the bits, a national (and international) communications infrastructure that are predominantly privately owned (at least in the US) to move the bits, and standards that involve all the players on how to interpret the bits. The argument here is all about the communications infrastructure to move the bits, who owns it, who is going to pay for it, and who is going to control it. Clearly, the FCC and the carriers have very different perspectives on this.

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  3. Triumph says:

    To the extent bandwidth is limited, it makes sense to prioritize email and search, things essential for modern life, over movie downloads and other frivolities that threaten to clog the pipes.

    I’m not sure you are getting at the main issue. You seem to suggest that the objection to net neutrality is due to the quantity of data consumed. That isn’t the case at all. In fact some ISPs already use your “post office model” by charging for the amount of data used. There is nothing to preclude an ISP to charge customers based on volume.

    Net neutrality is more concerned with companies dictating the qualitative aspects of what you download. As an example: a problem could arise if, say, Comcast blocked or slowed down a program like Skype in order to make its own VOIP service more attractive.

    Or, the ISP could charge content providers more money to make their pages run faster–so, for instance, Slate or the NY Times would pay big bucks to get quick page rendering and Outside the Beltway would be slow as hell if you didn’t pay to be a privileged site.

    This is the problem–the ISPs determining what content you get at certain speeds. This is why your post office analogy is a bit off base–they deliver anything. They make no distinction between my subscription to Juggs and my subscription to Cat Fancy. They can’t discriminate on the basis of the mail’s content.

    The real libertarian position would actually welcome net neutrality regulation since it will insure individuals the freedom to consume the type of information we want. If certain information is “heavier” than others, ISPs can just charge more for more volume (as many do already).

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  4. anjin-san says:

    Triumph has nailed the core issue. The internet is a great leveler, and the big boys don’t like or want a level playing field, they want to be able to use their size to crush competition.

    If Acme Corp. is paying 100k a month for premium speed access to its website for customers, and potential competitor LittleCo has a slow site because they can’t afford the toll to get on the fast lane, guess what, the small potential competitor is DOA.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    Triumph: I’m not a fan of discriminatory pricing for like content and don’t really have a strong opinion on this issue, which has festered for quite some time now. But I do get the vague sense that, as Cuban and Charles Austin above argue, there are technical reasons that some firms might require faster-than-normal or otherwise guaranteed bandwidth.

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  6. James Joyner says:

    If Acme Corp. is paying 100k a month for premium speed access to its website for customers, and potential competitor LittleCo has a slow site because they can’t afford the toll to get on the fast lane, guess what, the small potential competitor is DOA.

    But, what if everybody is on the slow lane and a handful of companies — say, those providing streaming video content — are willing to pay to build the digital equivalent of a toll road so they can run their business. A business that couldn’t work on the “regular” internet. Are you so sure that we should preclude that?

    If the issue is simply one of ISPs being able to also own net-based businesses and screw over competitors, I’d agree that this is detrimental to the public good. But I think it’s less cut-and-dried than that.

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  7. Dave Schuler says:

    until the first browser (MOSAIC)

    Charles Austin, by whom were the authors of Mosaic employed? By whom were the designers of the protocols that Mosaic implemented employed?

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  8. Eric Florack says:

    Private industry didn’t develop the Internet. It was developed by the government. When did predatory pricing by government-established monopolies become libertarian.

    And so, you’re saying that at no point this stuff gets turned over to private industry? That seems to me dooming the Internet to failure.

    In that direction, for example, lies the passenger railroad industry. The government, on the pretext that it was the one who funded a lot of the railroad industry and its onset, never got used to the idea of letting the railroads run the railroads as opposed to the Federal government stepping in and every inch along the way. As a direct result, the profitability and sustainability of such enterprises went by the way quite quickly indeed.

    I suggest to you that the same thing is going to be happening to health care, and to the companies which were stupid enough to take the easy money offered them by Mr. Obama as of last February. The hook is in, now, and the fish of private industry will never be free of it. The outcome of the thing is eminently predictable.

    Triumph: I’m not a fan of discriminatory pricing for like content and don’t really have a strong opinion on this issue, which has festered for quite some time now. But I do get the vague sense that, as Cuban and Charles Austin above argue, there are technical reasons that some firms might require faster-than-normal or otherwise guaranteed bandwidth.

    The trouble with that, James, is that they can only guarantee that bandwidth so far. Regardless of how you prioritize traffic at the source, there is going to be bottlenecks between you and the source for reasons that are uncontrollable by those at the source or at the receiving end.

    Given the exponential increases in available bandwidth in most areas of the country, and for that matter the world, however, I wonder how much of these arguments are going to mean much, in the end. It is said that bad situations make for bad law. I worry that by establishing bandwidth discrimination now, we’re setting ourselves up for worse situation down the road. Let’s imagine , you and I, that we end up in a situation where we have enough bandwidth available on the net where prior ties and traffic isn’t a technical concern anymore. Yet, we still have the laws in place which were designed to deal with a problem that no longer exists. Does anyone really suppose we’ll be able to eliminate laws ostensibly designed to combat bandwidth limitations? you know as well as I do, the government will never relinquish that control.

    On the other hand, that exponential bandwidth growth at the ISP level comes at some serious expense to the ISP’s. Requiring them to deal with the increased bandwidth demand without allowing them to cover their cost sufficiently seems to me a pattern well established by the Federal Railway Association years ago. And, as I say, the outcome of that is quite eminently predictable.

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  9. odograph says:

    Don’t forget that through an accident of history a local monopoly on cable television became a broader monopoly on data access.

    (Yes, I know that one satellite and one telephone company provider are supposed to be competition, but that is a game. Just enough players are let in to support seeming competition. The cable companies, gobbled by national corps, essentially have a government granted monopoly. Their opposition to net neutrality is all about their desire to extract maximum revenue from that monopoly.)

    If we’d decreed that cable monopolies could only last 10 years from first service, and after that communities had to at least listen to bids from alternate providers, this would all look much different.

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  10. anjin-san says:

    But I think it’s less cut-and-dried than that.

    It is far more complex. But this is the core issue. The Huffington Post could pay 50K a month for premium access out of petty cash. Where would that leave you?

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  11. Dr. Schuler, I’m sure you know that it was Marc Andreesen and others working in the NCSA at the University of Illinois. It was about 8-9 years after my time there. But even so, who invented the Internet, Mosaic, etc., still has very little to do with net neutrality.

    Some of the other comments keep referring to ISPs, and while it is true that net neutrality is an issue there the real battlefield is in wireless. Capacity on wired networks tends to keep staying in front of the need, or Youtube, streaming flicks from Netflix, etc., wouldn’t be happening. However, streaming video absolutely chews up limited bandwidth on wireless networks. Off the top of my head from memory, 1-2% of users are taking up 98% of wireless bankwidth right now. The model that pretty much works for wired Internet does not and cannot translate well to wireless. Again, there are no spectrum limitations on wired connections like there are for wireless as you can always lay more fiber while spectrum is very. very limited. And don’t forget that while OC768 wired connections can achieve a throughput of 39 Gb/sec, the maximum theoretical bandwidth over a wireless connection is just over 100Mb/sec. You just can’t credibly gloss over the difference of five orders of magnitude between the two technologies.

    The industry expects a migration to smaller, more versatile handsets over PCs in the not too distant future and most of those are going to be wireless, not wired. Femtocells will help, but they aren’t going to solve the problem. Remember when 9/11 happened and seemingly nobody could place or get a call on their cell phone right afterwards? Well, imagine that kind of a “brownout” being an everyday phenomenon and you’ll see where we are heading. Like I said above, Mr. Genachowski fully understands the problem, it’s just his solutions that are the concern.

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  12. anjin-san says:

    Charles is right on track here. Wireless use is growing at a tremendous rate – iPhone users on ATT’s lame network are already unhappy with performance…

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  13. Gustopher says:

    The 900lb gorilla in the room here is Google (with Bing and others being smaller gorillas, or perhaps monkeys or lemurs or something). Google makes a lot of money, and ISPs want a cut of that money.

    Of course, if the ISPs are going after the content providers, search engines and other online companies, wouldn’t that prompt retaliation or at least dropping services for some networks?

    What might happen is that Time Warner’s cable company might charge Google more, and then Google might respond by dropping Time Warner properties from the search index. Or perhaps Comcast customers wouldn’t have access to Youtube, or Qwest customers might lose access to their hotmail accounts.

    That’s the inevitable consequence an unregulated internet: a ubiquitous, fairly even handed internet of today traded for a balkanized collection of networks and content providers interacting weirdly. Is that good for anyone?

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  14. Whereas allowing the government to pick the winners based on, oh I don’t know, maybe campaign contributions, will be so much better.

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  15. I’m curious, has Google spent a dime laying any fiber or putting up cell phone towers? But it’s ok for them to get the services of the carriers and use their bandwidth for free because…?

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  16. I’m curious, has Google spent a dime laying any fiber or putting up cell phone towers? But it’s ok for them to get the services of the carriers and use their bandwidth for free because…?

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  17. Gustopher says:

    In that direction, for example, lies the passenger railroad industry. The government, on the pretext that it was the one who funded a lot of the railroad industry and its onset, never got used to the idea of letting the railroads run the railroads as opposed to the Federal government stepping in and every inch along the way. As a direct result, the profitability and sustainability of such enterprises went by the way quite quickly indeed.

    Or, the federal government built an interstate highway system, so people and goods could go zipping about on that, which combined with the increasing quality and affordability of automobiles, and increasing affordability of air transport led to a substantial reduction in ridership.

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  18. Gustopher says:

    I’m curious, has Google spent a dime laying any fiber or putting up cell phone towers? But it’s ok for them to get the services of the carriers and use their bandwidth for free because…

    ISPs are already getting paid by content providers (Google, Microsoft, outsidethebeltway.com, etc), and end-usera (Gustopher, charles austin, etc) — no one is transferring stuff for free.

    The question is whether ISPs should charge extra to move a Google or Amazon packet about, and whether we want to create a situation where every ISP and content provider have to negotiate different pricing schemes.

    Wireless becomes just a fairly uninteresting corollary to the above problem. If AT&T is selling network access that they don’t have, why is that the content provider’s problem?

    And finally, where are my trick-or-treaters? It is 6:41 and I got one set… is it the hourly motel a block and a half away?

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  19. Michael says:

    I’m curious, has Google spent a dime laying any fiber or putting up cell phone towers?

    Google has spent a huge amount of money to their ISP to put their content online. Any network provider would jump at the chance to have Google as their client. In fact, that’s the problem, the network providers that don’t have Google as a client are going to try and charge them for access.

    Whereas allowing the government to pick the winners based on, oh I don’t know, maybe campaign contributions, will be so much better.

    Net Neutrality doesn’t pick a winner, it just says if you sell someone access to the internet, they get just that, the internet, and you don’t get to extort extra money out of the places people like to visit.

    But I do get the vague sense that, as Cuban and Charles Austin above argue, there are technical reasons that some firms might require faster-than-normal or otherwise guaranteed bandwidth.

    There’s a technical solution to that, it’s call Quality of Service. An ISP is free to limit the speed of torrent traffic, or streaming video. What they can’t do is limit which streaming video site gets limited and which doesn’t. It should also be noted that streaming video sites already pay proportionately for the large amount of bandwidth that they produce, and consumers already pay proportionately for the amount of bandwidth watching those videos produces.

    The network providers currently make money 3 ways, selling content providers for access to the internet, charging content consumer for access to the internet, and charging other network providers for connection to their providers and consumers. Now, they are talking about charging that other network’s producers an extra fee for transporting their data. This is what Net Neutrality wants to stop.

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  20. AILUROS says:

    A simple, and common, mistake in this article: Net neutrality is disallowing the holder of the data pipe from charging more, or throttling differently, for different senders and/or receivers of data, (essentially, limiting them from taking advantage of their monopoly over the pipe by charging themselves or partners less) not different types or quantities (as in QoS, monthly caps, or bandwidth limits) of data. They can already do that, and many do! Hell, many ISPs block entire ports and throttle others! There’s nothing in the current arrangement that keeps them from prioritizing VoIP and throttling torrents. Nothing. They just can’t prioritize only their VoIP and nobody else’s, and can’t throttle only certain torrents.

    I could be more specific, but this is pretty much the problem with much of the Net Neutrality debate – people aren’t entirely sure what it is. Another failure of marketing by the Good Guys, IMO — they don’t think it is needed, or are averse to “corporate” ideas… sadly.

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  21. AILUROS says:

    OOPS.

    Started my last post… last night, and now others have said what I did, but better :-)

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  22. kth says:

    I don’t really get the wireless objection. I’m so not an engineer it’s not funny, but–the backbone(s) aren’t wireless (I mean 802.11x, etc, not whatever satellite technology is involved), are they? So the choke point, where wireless is concerned, is really only at the faucet end, right?

    If the cell tower, or the router at Starbucks, wants to throttle torrents or whatever it has to do to manage traffic, most people probably wouldn’t have a problem with it. It’s the routers and switches at the midpoints of the network that would be the main concern. And those are mostly connected by fiber-optic and probably always will be. Don’t see how wireless justifies any of the preferences they might want to implement.

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