Wednesday, December 06, 2006


Framing Network Neutrality Right

As a proponent of Network Neutrality, I cringe when I hear, "We do not even know what Network Neutrality means." We DO know. Such statements are true ONLY in the sense that we don't know the precise dividing line between a shelf and a table, or that we can't say precisely how a tree grows, or that there's sometimes fuzziness in whether a death is a murder.

It is in the telcos' and cablecos' interest to keep Network Neutrality amorphous and undefinable. If we don't even know what it is, we can't pass a law against it, right?

We DO know what Net Neutrality is. There are several excellent definitions of Network Neutrality, e.g., by the Annenberg Center, by savetheinternet [.pdf] [disclosure: I work as an unpaid volunteer with the savetheinternet folks], and, perhaps the clearest statement of all, since it is stated as proposed legislation, by Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) [actual 2006 Bill here .pdf].

The unifying element is the prohibition of deliberate discrimination.

If you really want to know what Network Neutrality is, you have to read the work of the people who WANT to define it, not the people who object to defining it, or who stand to make more money if it is not defined.

In many cases, Wikipedia is the best way to get up to speed on a new concept. But the Wikipedia article on Network Neutrality, as it currently stands, is positively confusing. It is an ideological battleground. Sometimes strong-pro and strong-anti do not add up to Wikipedia's famous NPOV (neutral point of view). In its first paragraph,
Network neutrality is a general principle of Internet carrier regulation requiring the network to satisfy all application needs equally. For example, a perfectly neutral network would not give better service to some web sites than others, and it is argued that it would likewise not favor web-surfing or blogging over online gaming or Voice over IP. It is also guided by the assumption that the public good is maximized by limiting Internet innovation to the edges, where things are often easier to change, rather than the core of the network.
I see at least three loaded words and four unnecessary ambiguities. Meanwhile the introduction misses the main point, deliberate discrimination (e.g., favoring a "partner" VOIP provider over another VOIP provider).

David Weinberger reports on a weekend gathering of progressive activists that was drawn into the "What does Network Neutrality mean?" discussion. He reports, "I recently spent a day . . . with a dozen people who understand Net tech deeply, going through exactly which of the 496 permutations would constitute a violation of Net Neutrality . . . The whole thing makes my brain hurt." Unfortunately, this found its way into the Wikipedia article, impelling Weinberger to Wikipedia's discussion page on Net Neutrality, where he says, "It . . . is used to make a point that it in fact does not support . . . I hope someone removes that paragraph." DW recounts the incident here.

I was not there, but I'll venture a guess that this gathering of activists unwittingly adopted the telco frame! What problem were they trying to solve? Were they trying to write a NN law? If so, they could have started with Markey or Wyden. Were they trying to be a model FCC (or court) enforcing a hypothetical law? If so, they should have considered some specific cases. (Maybe they did?) Or did they unwittingly succumb to the oppostion's framing and spend a whole day in fascinating, knowledgeable but off-base repartee?

It is possible that discussing Network Neutrality all day with, "a dozen people who understand Net tech deeply," is something like discussing murder with a cadre of physiologists. There are likely to be interesting debates, but the discussion does not bear on whether anti-murder legislation is worthwhile or how to get it.

Weinberger concurs, writing, " . . . it's challenging to work out the precise application of NN in some instances doesn't mean that the meaning of the principle itself is unclear."

So let's be clear. Network Neutrality in the first degree means No. Deliberate. Discrimination.

As for murder, we don't know what it really means and laws against it are demonstrably unenforceable, so, hey, let's deregulate it and let the marketplace decide.

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David, I like and agree with all of this except for your criticism of the meeting that tried to work out the specifics of what a neutral network might look like. All there (with one well-known exception) are strong supporters of NN. The aim of the meeting was not to come up with a definition of NN because, you're right, we do know what it means. The aim was to try to get a sense of what NN would look like when applied to the details and when the details are debated. I don't see anything objectionable about that. In fact, I think it's valuable to be able to counter NN critics when they raise strawmen arguments.

That aside, yahoo, Isen!
Actually, net neutrality proponents are sharply divided about what constitutes "discrimination", and one can find this rift in the writings of one David Isenberg, for example. In "The Rise of the Stupid Network" the author describes something called "idiot savant behaviors" which allow the network to tailor transport services to the needs of applications. This is a sort of "discrimination" and a violation of Strict Stupidity. But not to do this, which would be to simply treat all packets the same, is also a form of discrimination because it favors applications that care more about bulk data transfer over those that need timely service.

So either way, one can wave this hands about "discrimination" or one can address application realities, and we all have to choose.
Not sure if you guys saw this video about net neutrality. I thought it was pretty good.

What's good is that if you don't like it you can make your own cut using all the material plus any more you want to add.

By talking and arguing about this over and over, we'll figure it out.
Even "deliberate discrimination" is far too vague to build regulations on. After all, there is good discrimination and bad discrimination--in the civil rights realm, there are protected categories (like sex and race), and there are categories that are not protected (such as level of skill, talent, and knowledge, credit rating, and having a criminal record).

Why wouldn't it be permissible for, say, a provider of VoIP peering services, to set minimum security requirements for interconnection, and to charge for interconnection to an EF class of service, permitting only those that meet the requirements to do so? It seems to me that many network neutrality advocates have explicitly argued that such contractual arrangements should be prohibited.

The Annenberg guidelines are very vague, but their recommendation to regulate "on a nationally uniform basis with a light touch" is a good one. Their "basic Internet access" also seems reasonable, so long as it doesn't mean that all players have to provide that service--there should be room for specialty providers who don't do "basic Internet access."

SavetheInternet is more problematic--they continue to willfully conflate telco common carriage requirements with network neutrality and telco access circuits with "the Internet" in their claim that we've always had network neutrality regulation up until recently. This ignores the fact that the incumbent telcos got most of their Internet business by acquisition, and the actual providers of Internet services have not been subject to regulations governing their interconnection with each other or their customers.
1. I change the queueing algorithm in my routers in a way that causes more jitter. Murder, manslaughter, or not guilty? ["Class of service discrimination"]

2. I'm an Australian ISP, but my cheapest route to New Zealand is a double trans-pacific trip adding lots of latency -- although my IMS+QoS VoIP service goes direct. Murder, manslaugher, or not guilty? ["Class of destination discrimination"]

3. I'm an ISP and I distribute DSL modems whose default firewall settings block port 25 to anywhere but my own mail relays. Murder, manslaugher, or not guilty? ["Edge device/retail channel discrimination"]
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