On Net Neutrality – A Plea

Recently, McCain introduced a bill for consideration which would effectively block the FCC’s attempts at creating so-called “Network Neutrality” rules which ISPs and Telcos would be required to follow.  Now, setting aside for a moment the fact that McCain has received more than double as much money as the next-highest senator to be bankrolled by the Telco/ISP industry, and the comments made by leading nutjob crazy-person and all-around internet expert Glenn Beck, I’d like to first offer an explanation of what’s at stake here for those who don’t really understand the nuts-and-bolts of how the internet works.

I am going to use a very general analogy for how the internet works: a city.  Now, the city that is the internet is a very strange city indeed.  This city isn’t owned by any single country or government.  Just about anyone can come and go as they please.  Now, this city has three basic pieces, and they way they blend isn’t that different from how any city works:  you have content “Servers,” content “Consumers,” and a transit system.  The Servers could be anything from a tent someone just set up for a while to a huge mall, or a towering building, but it is basically somewhere you can get some content.  In Internet City, just about anybody can become a Server.  Then, there are the Consumers.  This is probably where you fit in to Internet City — when you use the internet, you are at home, or at work, or on your phone, but you are mostly-if-not-exclusively retrieving content from these Servers (this includes posting on social media sites, such as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, et al).

The third part of the city is the transit system, which is your ISP.  At the top of the chain are the people who make all the roads, the asphalt, the car you will drive around the internet city, and pretty much everything you will need to get from point A to point ∞.  These are the Tier-1 Network Providers (and to some extent the larger Tier-2 providers, but this discussion is beyond the scope of this analogy); they are few, and they are powerful.  Of course, they generally don’t personally make every single road; who handles the road from there just depends on where it leads, who is willing to go there, and what services they intend to offer.  These are the Tier-2 and Tier3 Networks, and they are probably more familiar to you.

Now, how fast you can get somewhere depends on three things: What kind of car you bought (your specific internet package), what kind of road the journey takes (the quality of ALL the connections from you to your destination, and back), and how far you have to go.  If you have a mac-daddy broadband connection, and you are accessing a major site (major news networks, etc), you’ll spend most of your time on the metaphorical highway, and should get your data rather quickly, and the inverse is true as well.  Any further delving into how this works is also beyond the scope of this analogy, but you get the idea.

So what is Net(work) Neutrality?  The idea is that no matter from where or whom traffic comes, ISPs may not give preferential treatment to it.  As fast as the hardware will carry it must it go.  Groups and people who support this include small ISPs, who don’t want their customers to get abused by the larger and higher-tier internet providers, as well as Tim Berners-Lee, a man whom you may not have heard of but whom you are in contact with right now, as he practically invented the “World Wide Web” we have come to know.  Opposing this is the idea that an ISP should be allowed to decide to give (at their own, private, and in this writer’s opinion, dubious, whim) preferential treatment to some data, at the expense of other data.  On the relatively mild side of the spectrum, they could choose to allocate their network resources in such a way that, for example, their particular VoIP service received preference over competitors such as Vonage and Skype.  This is mild, and arguably benign in the grand scheme of things (so long as they advantage isn’t dialed to extreme levels, to the point that it is a detriment to competitors), and not what the issue is about.  Given total freedom of how data flows, they could route traffic in such a way that their own VoIP service takes precedence over their competitor’s VoIP service — they could even extort a fee to avoid this sort of “traffic shaping” — all without the consumer being able to defend against this action.  The customer would then be nearly forced to use that company’s VoIP service, or any service it chose, in order to get any semblance of quality.

A real-world example would be like allowing the government to create a lane of traffic in which only USPS vehicles could travel, and then forcing UPS and FedEx to use 1-lane dirt roads instead of the highways, since they are a competing service.  Or, in the analogy of Internet City, it would be like the powers-that-be on the roads checking to see where you are going (in Internet City, you have to announce where you’re going or you can’t get there), and then forcing you to use smaller, slower roads, or yield to indefinite amounts of other traffic, based on whether or not you were going to one of their in-house holdings.  Nightmarish.

Some of the points brought up against Net Neutrality are, quite frankly, absolutely ludicrous.  As someone posted on the PC World forums:

“What this article completely fails to state (talk about one-sided reporting!) is that Google has devoted far more money to lobbying for regulation of the Internet than the telcos have to defending itself against it. Google has given hundreds of millions of dollars to slimy DC “astroturf” groups — that is, groups that pretend to be acting in the “public interest” but in fact do what their contributors tell them to do — which are lobbying for “network neutrality” legislation and regulation. And if you look at the details of all of these regulations — which start with high-minded language that talks about “freedom” and “openness” — all of them would tie the hands of ISPs and of Google’s competitors, while giving Google free rein to do whatever it wants, including to serve as an Internet gatekeeper. The regulations would also raise the price of Internet service, lower the quality of that service, and reduce consumers’ competitive choices by putting small providers out of business.

Remember: corporations don’t act out of the goodness of their hearts. Monopolist Google wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t seeking to maximize its profits at the expense of consumers. So, remember: “network neutrality” isn’t neutral. It is Google’s corporate agenda, and it strongly favors Google.”

Wow, that is a lot of Big Brother Meets Google conspiracy theorizing (Ballmer, is that you?)! Aside from that, the points this person raises are thus:

  1. It will raise the price of internet service. How, exactly? One of the possibilities is that, after some time (maybe a few years) of ISPs shaping traffic however they please, they will offer a new “unshaped” plan for only $20.00 more per month, thereby allowing them to charge you more for the same service you’re getting at the time this article was written. However, if we are given true Net Neutrality, there is no reason for the price to go up (other than inflation, which doesn’t count). After all, if nothing changes, then there’s no new way to sell us back what we’re already getting.
  2. It would lower the quality of internet service. Again, how? If you think that internet service means that all you do all day is browse your ISPs website and use their video service, their email service, their phone service, and so on, then maybe it would “lower” the quality from the standpoint that it would not be “increasing” the quality, which as previously mentioned would be at the expense of everyone else. Quality won’t degrade because we didn’t decide to let the ISPs tell us what is more valuable. To re-iterate the point, Net Neutrality basically means nothing changes.
  3. It will reduce consumers’ competitive choices by putting small providers out of business. No, just no. Small ISPs in Canada came out strongly in favor of Net Neutrality before such legislation was passed anyway.  The larger wholesale (Tier-2) internet providers were shaping bandwidth to the point that it affected large numbers of users of the smaller Tier-3 providers, and the small providers resisted, but at the end of the day they are buying internet (albeit in larger increments than you or I) from the Tier-1 providers, and they are the ones against Net Neutrality.  Funny how the exact people who are against neutrality are feeding you the exact opposite of truth about what will happen to the “competition.”  And, to round out this bullet point, Tier-1 providers who are going to bat on this one (AT&T, Cogent, et al) just don’t care what the little guys are doing: they have the pipes in the middle, and everyone else needs them.

Of course, these are just the arguments on Net Neutrality that actually have something to do with the subject at hand!  Then there are the downright lies spread by, among others, Glenn Beck, such as:

  1. Net Neutrality will bring the Fairness Doctrine to the internet, resulting in government censorship/control of the content on the internet. It is extremely important to remember that, above all, the Internet does not exist solely in America.  The internet is no longer any more an American thing than it is a Russian thing or any other location-based thing.  The internet is vast, it is (from the point of view of the average user) limitless, and no one country owns it.  America could try to censor the content located in America.  America might even try to create treaties with other nations to control what is hosted in their countries.  However, all this will do is open up a market for “regulation-free” hosts, in countries who wouldn’t sign any such treaty (maybe a nice time to wire-up some third-world African nations?), or something else like it.  Let me, again, put this in the simplest terms possible: NO SINGLE COUNTRY CAN CONTROL THE CONTENT OF THE INTERNET.  IN ALL LIKELIHOOD, NO COMBINATION OF COUNTRIES CAN CONTROL THE CONTENT OF THE INTERNET.The internet is not just one person, one company, or one country.

    And to think, I said all of that without even mentioning that NET NEUTRALITY DOES NOT IN ANY WAY, SHAPE OR FORM REFERENCE OR ATTEMPT TO INSTITUTE ANY SORT OF FAIRNESS DOCTRINE. This argument would be laughable if it weren’t given so much credence by lying morons like Glenn Beck who, like McCain (from whom I respectfully withhold the indictment of “lying moron”), really don’t know the first thing about the technology they are so passionately speaking about, and the credence it will be given by the people that listen to and trust them.  This issue is a Red Herring.
  2. The government will be stepping in as a watchdog of the internet. No, the government would simply be stepping in to maintain the status quo so that Tier-1 providers don’t start exploiting their customers in unfair ways. Everybody, whether Servers or Consumers, pays for the “pipes in the middle” that is the transit system — why does the transit system then get to start deciding at what speed or priority I get to receive the content I’ve payed them good money to get?  This issue is a misunderstanding.
  3. Net Neutrality is a ploy by left-wing liberals to socialize internet access. I don’t even have a diatribe for this one, I’ll just rest on saying that no, it’s not in the bill, it’s not on the table, no. Prominent liberals, such as “Van” Jones, have spoken about how we should be giving broadband access, for free, to everyone, like they do in some other countries, but this is a separate goal from the standpoints of the technology, the FCC, and the implementation, as well as the bill that is on the table.  These views are not encompassed by Net Neutrality, but are in fact a Red Herring.
  4. Revolution!  Marxism!  Destroying Capitalism!  Rabble rabble! It is important to remember that you can hire someone to kill someone else, but this is considered an unfair, immoral, and reprehensible business practice and thus it is forbidden.  Regulations on how you can do business with respect to, quite frankly, not just plain crapping all over the environment, the public, and your own consumers, are commonplace in our legal system; you really, really wouldn’t want to live in a world where companies could do whatever they wanted any time as long as it turned a buck.  And as for all the talks of people somehow magically using Net Neutrality for revolutionary and/or Marxist goals?  These are, you guessed it, Red Herrings!  And a special breed of Ad Hominem Red Herrings at that!  In fact, given the blatantly untrue and often unfounded accusations that Beck has made against his opponents, I’d say this also qualifies as a Straw Man Fallacy.
  5. The government will be controlling content. No, see argument 1.
  6. The internet won’t work as well, things will load slowly, etc. The reason given here is/was that there won’t be enough competition and so on.  Again, Network Neutrality advocates the status quo — that is, just because you have the traffic before you sell it doesn’t mean you can decide how it’s used once you’ve sold it to me.  This is an Outright Lie.
  7. Net Neutrality does not help innovate business. You’re right, it doesn’t. It protects the little guy from having big businesses “innovate” more money out of his wallet. Next.
  8. The government will take over the internet. Again, see argument 1 — the American government can no more regulate the internet than it can nail Jell-O to a tree.  The long and the short of it is that, even if the government suddenly decided it wanted to own all hosting services (remember, content is DISTINCT from transport), anyone can set up a server on any computer connected to the internet, and suddenly they are content providers.  The internet is a vast, untamed, wild environment.  THE GOVERNMENT CANNOT CONTROL IT.

Mark Lloyd said something very important that bears quoting:

“Unfortunately, the powerful cable and telecom industry doesn’t value the Internet for its public interest benefits. Instead, these companies too often believe that to safeguard their profits … they must control what content you see and how you get it. Their plans could have dire consequences for those whose voices are often marginalized by our nation’s media system.” -Mark Lloyd, Federal Communications Commission.

Beck’s guest then attacked him, specifically saying “they turn things inside out,” then going on to imply that Lloyd wanted to use Net Neutrality as a means to Government Control and a re-introduction of the fairness doctrine, and that he would use this new government brand internet to give voices to the “marginalized people” a la the fairness doctrine. He not only completely misconstrued (I’d say misunderstood except I believe that he is an evil little man) the quote but, in fact, turned it as inside out as he claimed the Net Neutrality proponents are doing.

TL;DR Net Neutrality, though technically regulation, is very mild and serves only to prevent the ISPs and Telecoms from regulating how the traffic you pay for gets shaped; it provides no slippery slope nor sets any precedent for the government to control the internet. Supporting Net Neutrality (and opposing Sen. McCain’s bill) is supporting the status quo, and supporting the rights of the consumer. The government cannot, and will not, control the content of the internet; not only is not that even on the table here, it is fundamentally impossible, and outside the scope of even the FCC. Before you overreact, learn what’s actually going on. Please.

P.S., for another well-thought-ought viewpoint on net neutrality, check out this post on Brad Ideas.  He believes that we don’t need to codify Net Neutrality into law, but I think he would also support the not coding into law of the exact opposite.  I disagree with him, and think that we should make it law, if only because this is the second time that opposition has arisen loudly in government, but his opinion is worth reading nonetheless.

Additional Link: http://www.ethioplanet.com/news/2009/10/25/google-verizon-join-forces-to-support-net-neutrality/

Recent Entries

Comments are closed.