February 14, 2011
Although I remain a huge admirer of Lawrence Lessig, I am ashamed to admit that I never fully understood the importance of net neutrality until last week. Mr. Lessig described network neutrality in these urgent terms in 2006:
At the center of the debate is the most important public policy you've probably never heard of: "network neutrality." Net neutrality means simply that all like Internet content must be treated alike and move at the same speed over the network. The owners of the Internet's wires cannot discriminate. This is the simple but brilliant "end-to-end" design of the Internet that has made it such a powerful force for economic and social good: All of the intelligence and control is held by producers and users, not the networks that connect them.
Fortunately, the good guys are winning. Recent legal challenges to network neutrality have been defeated, at least under US law. I remember hearing about these legal decisions at the time, but I glossed over them because I thought they were fundamentally about file sharing and BitTorrent. Not to sound dismissive, but someone's legal right to download a complete video archive of Firefly wasn't exactly keeping me up at night.
But network neutrality is about far more than file sharing bandwidth. To understand what's at stake, study the sordid history of the world's communication networks – starting with the telegraph, radio, telephone, television, and onward. Without historical context, it's impossible to appreciate how scarily easy it is for common carriage to get subverted and undermined by corporations and government in subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways, with terrible long-term consequences for society.
That's the genius of Tim Wu's book
The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.
One of the most fascinating stories in the book is that of Harry Tuttle and AT&T.
Harry Tuttle was, for most of his life, president of the Hush-a-Phone Corporation, manufacturer of the telephone silencer. Apart from Tuttle, Hush-a-Phone employed his secretary. The two of them worked alone out of a small office near Union Square in New York City. Hush-a-Phone's signature product was shaped like a scoop, and it fit around the speaking end of a receiver, so that no one could hear what the user was saying on the telephone. The company motto emblazoned on its letterhead stated the promise succinctly: "Makes your phone private as a booth."
If the Hush-a-Phone never became a household necessity, Tuttle did a decent business, and by 1950 he would claim to have sold 125,000 units. But one day late in the 1940s, Henry Tuttle received alarming news. AT&T had launched a crackdown on the Hush-a-Phone and similar products, like the Jordaphone, a creaky precursor of the modern speakerphone, whose manufacturer had likewise been put on notice. Bell repairmen began warning customers that Hush-a-Phone use was a violation of a federal tariff and that, failing to cease and desist, they risked termination of their telephone service.
Was AT&T merely blowing smoke? Not at all: the company was referring to a special rule that was part of their covenant with the federal government. It stated: No equipment, apparatus, circuit or device not furnished by the telephone company shall be attached to or connected with the facilities furnished by the telephone company, whether physically, by induction, or otherwise.
Tuttle hired an attorney, who petitioned the FCC for a modification of the rule and an injunction against AT&T's threats. In 1950 the FCC decided to hold a trial (officially a "public hearing") in Washington, D.C., to consider whether AT&T, the nation's regulated monopolist, could punish its customers for placing a plastic cup over their telephone mouthpiece.
The story of the Hush-a-Phone and its struggle with AT&T, for all its absurdist undertones, offers a window on the mindset of the monopoly at its height, as well as a picture of the challenges facing even the least innovative innovator at that moment.
Absurdist, indeed – Harry Tuttle is also not-so-coincidentally the name of a character in the movie Brazil, one who attempts to work as a renegade, outside oppressive centralized government systems. Often at great peril to his own life and, well, that of anyone who happens to be nearby, too.
But the story of Harry Tuttle isn't just a cautionary tale about the dangers of large communication monopolies. Guess who was on Harry Tuttle's side in his sadly doomed legal effort against the enormously powerful Bell monopoly? No less than an acoustics professor by the name of Leo Beranek, and an expert witness by the name of J.C.R. Licklider.
If you don't recognize those names, you should. J.C.R. Licklider went on to propose and design ARPANET, and Leo Beranek became one of the B's in Bolt, Beranek and Newman, who helped build ARPANET. In other words, these gentlemen went on from battling the Bell monopoly in court in the 1950s to designing a system in 1968 that would ultimately defeat it: the internet.
The internet is radically unlike all the telecommunications networks that have preceded it. It's the first national and global communication network designed from the outset to resist mechanisms for centralized control and monopoly. But resistance is not necessarily enough; The Master Switch makes a compelling case that, historically speaking, all communication networks start out open and then rapidly swing closed as they are increasingly commercialized.
Just as our addiction to the benefits of the internal combustion engine led us to such demand for fossil fuels as we could no longer support, so, too, has our dependence on our mobile smart phones, touchpads, laptops, and other devices delivered us to a moment when our demand for bandwidth – the new black gold – is insatiable. Let us, then, not fail to protect ourselves from the will of those who might seek domination of those resources we cannot do without. If we do not take this moment to secure our sovereignty over the choices that our information age has allowed us to enjoy, we cannot reasonably blame its loss on those who are free to enrich themselves by taking it from us in a manner history has foretold.
It's up to us to be vigilant in protecting the concepts of common carriage and network neutrality on the internet. Even devices that you may love, like an iPad, Kindle, or Xbox, can easily be turned against you – if you let them.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
There's nothing in NN that has the FCC rationing bandwidth. I'm sure you know that, I'm unsure why you brought it up.
If you actually *were* aware of the fullness of Comcast's sins, you'd realise it wasn't just about throttling. They were actually impersonating your pc in network transactions and sending drop packets, effectively blocked access to certain protocols. That's more than a little insidious. I had to engage in onion routing and packet obfuscation to even be able to use the internet the way it was intended to be used.
Charging people more based on usage I'm sure is a great revenue idea, but it would never fly. People talk a lot about stifling innovation with regards to NN. You know what is pushing innovation forward? The obscene bandwidth demands of users like you and me. The infrastructure is forced to evolve and new technology emerges. Give companies a way to make more money by not innovating, and I guarantee that they take it.
Nate, I think you're confusing what net neutrality means. Without net neutrality, switching off your torrent would NOT speed up your Netflix, because Comcast has decided the Netflix bits competes with their own offerings and limits how much you can download for that service in particular. They could decide to charge you extra to allow you to download faster from Netflix, or they could just limit it so you're more likely to use their services.
WITHOUT Net Neutrality, it's not about how much bandwidth you use (you're already limited now), it's about what you're using your bandwidth for. The ISP decides how you use your bandwidth.
They were actually impersonating your pc in network transactions and sending drop packets, effectively blocked access to certain protocols.
Which protocols? If I were the victim of such behavior, how would I notice and/or be negatively affected?
The ISP decides how you use your bandwidth.
But… have they actually done anything like that? Again, what is the negative effect to me?
All of these things sound scary, but in the end, what I want to know is how are these allegedly insidious practices actually hurting me right now? The idea of Comcast making a big error message appear on my computer that says, "Comcast has determined that you much pay $20 more per month to view this content" is horrible to imagine but has anything like that actually happened yet? Or are we just worried that it may happen in the future? That's why I'm skeptical. Nobody has been able to articulate how I'm being hurt by the status quo in a way that resonates with me.
NN supporters talk about all these terrible events in the future yet call for regulation now; if the regulations are expected to be effective, then couldn't they be enacted once the predicted problems actually materialize?
Net neutrality and its legislation are obviously two separate things. Right now we have net neutrality for the most part so we don't need the legislation. What some people suggest is that even if ISPs do start doing exactly those "scary" things, there should be no legislation because net neutrality itself is bad.
I don't expect you to go through all the comments and find my original one, but what I was arguing is that a well thought out plan for legislation should be debated and ready if ISPs do need to be regulated, and it should be put in place if needed.
Then again, I don't think it'd be horrible if we preempted the ISPs and just legislated it now - if they're already doing it, it won't be a big deal and it'll have less of an economic impact since the risk to companies dependent on net neutrality (i.e. everyone other than the ISPs) will be known. From a business owner's perspective, the last thing I want is more volatility.
The first comment is pretty good:
"Keep your regulations out of my Internet. Please."
"Networks start out open and then rapidly swing closed as they are increasingly commercialized." is a pile of BS. The reality is that:
"Networks start out open and then rapidly swing closed as they are increasingly regulated". The internet is very commercialized. It's also very open.
To see the other part of argument, let's take, your OWN example, Jeff. AT&T is not a monopoly that arose and kept its monopoly as part of fair and square competition. Your example is a monopoly that used GOVERNMENT as a means of crushing its comptetors. Which is, of course, the real problem.
Net Neutrality is the way for monopolies to crush thier smaller competetion. Net Neutrality does not prohibit laying your own cable for your own traffic, nor should it. Google and microsoft do this, for example. Net Neutrality does not prohibit using edge caching like Akamai to speed up your traffic, nor should it. Both of those make the internet inherently faster. The big players can always pay money to speed up thier traffic. This is a fact that will not change. Net Neutrality does prohibits the medium/smaller players to talk directly with ISP for speeding up thier traffic, which is the same unfairness you claim to deplore.
On top of that, Net Neutrality makes connecting more devices to the net inherently difficult. If you can't hookup a heart monitor and have it's traffic preferred, it will be drowned in the sea of porn.
I am a little disappointed in this article :(
Pavel, the intentions of the internet and the guarantees provided by its fundamental architecture do not allow for the "heart monitor" use case you mentioned. You'd need to set up something much more reliable than internet protocol (IP) with latency and reliability guarantees for something life threatening and realtime. Connecting it to the public on the internet would make it dead simple for a hacker to literally DOS someone to death, especially with its traffic being prioritized straight to its servers.
IP only provides best effort delivery. If a company wants to provide a service with different characteristics, then they can certainly build that - having ISPs add layers to check where traffic is coming from so they can prioritize it for edge cases like this will just slow it down for everyone. The solution to quality of service issues is to lay more pipe - removing net neutrality is at best a temporary bandaid solution for a minority. Net neutrality results in a faster internet.
You also pointed out a solution to the companies that have cash and need more bandwidth. Google, Microsoft, or Startup-X need bandwidth to their servers - how does giving ISPs the ability to limit how end users use their bandwidth solve that issue?
Companies can already pay ISPs to get more bandwidth for their servers! If a user wants more bandwidth they can already pay for it! They can decide for themselves how to use it without paying an ISP for the privilege.
Net neutrality equates to the freedom for users to decide how to use their bandwidth, instead of ISPs deciding for them. If you need more bandwidth, you can still purchase more - that's a separate issue.
There are also privacy concerns which I'm surprised people don't talk about. Do you really want ISPs to know how you use your bandwidth? They'll have to look at it so they can prioritize it.
Take away: Killing net neutrality means killing user freedom and privacy.
Pardon the hyperbole - seems the missinformation in the opposing arguments are pushing me further and further to the extreme.
"Networks start out open and then rapidly swing closed as they are increasingly regulated"
Argh! You see that cable switch box out in your front yard? The one that's connected to the underground cables that go under your street and that cross your property? Did Comcast pay you for the easement that let's their wiring cross your property. No? That's because Comcast or the local company that they bought out, worked out a monopoly deal with your local government. They promised to provide a public service as a part of their business, and in return the government used its power of eminent domain to get them their easements at minimal cost. If the cable companies and the phone want to get out from the thumb of government regulation they can bloody well give up their common carrier status, give back all their easements, and buy their rights of way like any other business would have to.
Though I basically agree with Jeff's point, I'm going to put in a good word for regulated monopolies. At the time AT&T was granted its monopoly it was widely believed that this was the best way to establish universal phone service. Given the technology of the time, nobody wanted to be the sucker that would string phone line to isolated farms in the middle of Kansas. Yeah, it would have increased the value of the network as a whole, but no company wanted to be the one trying to pay for those wires by billing 1 or two farmers per square mile. AT&T said they'd do it, >if< they could have a national monopoly on phone service. This may be anathema to the free market, but by God, we did get universal phone service which has been a huge boon to the health and productivity of the US.
Secondarily, Bell Labs was managed as part of the public service required of the company under the terms of the monopoly. When the monopoly ended, the corporate rationale for the pure research at the lab went away, and shortly after the break-up the lab went away (or at least the pure research stuff). It may be a shame that we didn't get Tuttle's hush-a-phone, but we did get the transistor, which is perhaps some compensation.
Net neutrality can pretty effectively be summed up as "The following is bad:"
AT&T: Dear , please pay us $ every months, or we will add a ms delay to everyone who attempts to use your site.
There is a lot of confusing of the issue in this comment thread. First of all, correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't really see anyone arguing against traffic shaping or QoS here. There's nothing wrong with network optimization so long as it's fair and relatively invisible to the end-user. What most net neutrality proponents are against is non-competitive practices such as a company like Comcast throttling a competitor's service to make their versions of said service more attractive. Allowing that sort of gatekeeper-ship to providers that may or may not have competition in many areas is going to stifle innovation and competition by dumping consumers back into the same content and communication monopolies that existed before the internet.
On the subject of "I'll do what I want with my wires," you do realize that there are good reasons to allow some government regulation for infrastructure services, right? Would you be ok with telephone providers intentionally crippling service between their customers and those of their competitors? How about the power company being paid by G.E. to provide a lower tier of service to homes that primarily use Sylvania light bulbs to hurt their competition? That type of vertical integration is acceptable when we're talking about entertainment, but not infrastructure services, which the internet is quickly becoming (if not already there). Also keep in mind that ISPs DO NOT OWN THE INTERNET. They own YOUR DRIVEWAY to the internet, and because of that they are in a unique position to hold their customers for ransom. Let's pretend you rented your driveway from a 3rd party. Should they have the right to monitor and regulate where you drive your car to and when?
On the subject of "it's a non-existent problem," some of that has to do with the fact that the FCC did guard against this type of behavior until April of 2010 when an appeals court overturned a ruling requiring ISPs to keep their networks open. Right now regulation is in limbo, with both sides waiting to see how currently-evolving legislation pans out. There has been plenty of evidence of some large ISP's intentions when it comes to this issue. Shall we all wait until their respective lobbies close the window on any sort of protection against this behavior before we pay attention to it?
On the subject of "hey, there's not unlimited bandwidth so they have to regulate usage somehow," ok, I have no problem with that...on one condition. Don't sell me your service on a tiered scale that you can't maintain. If I pay for 6Mbps service downstream I expect to be allowed a 6Mbps pipe whenever I want it regardless of what I'm using it for. If I'm using the bandwidth that I paid for without exceeded my allotted bandwidth I should not have my bandwidth lowered for using it more than other customers. If the ISP's infrastructure cannot sustain 6Mbps of usage from me then they should not sell me such a service.
This notion that government regulation is "bad" by default is bizarre. I grew up in a rural area where my folks couldn't get cable TV until 2003. As late as 1965, the farmers living in that area (only about 50 miles from the capital of a major US State) had no electricity. They literally were living in the 19th century, using wind-powered pumps to draw water for livestock.
The only reason they had telephone (party line service until 1991) or electricity is that the Federal and State government mandates forced them to do so.
The internet is precisely the same issue. The folks who adopt the Republican/Telephone Company point of view consider think that they have the right to tell you where to shop, seek entertainment and information by virtue of the fact that they own the wires that connect the wider world to your home. The offensive aspect of this in my mind is the fact that they do this under the guise of protecting our private affairs from government meddling. Presumably this means that they think allowing the telephone company to minimize my freedom is all good.
The problem I have with FCC control is I feel the bureaucracy will just be lobbied and captured and regulation used against us... kind of like the AT&T example. It took the force of law to let AT&T squelch the Hush-A-Phone. Why would the first choice be to run right back to government when some very very large corporations (Google) have a vested interest in fast moving bits and lots of bandwidth for consumers?
Sure, we might secure free flow of traffic today, but what about when we inevitably have to settle for bandwidth caps? What will the FCC rule, then?
I don't pay the same amount for electricity as my neighbors? I am metered. I feel it is inevitable that we will have to recognize the unfairness of grandma paying the same to send an email and visit two web sites as a college student downloading 50 to 100 music albums a day.
Sure, I don't care about the contents of the bits, either. But I do care that there is a limited amount of bandwidth and as more people get online, we simply can't create new bandwidth out of thin air without, you know... paying for it.
The Net Neutrality term is awfully overloaded. Does it mean deciding on "fast lanes" for certain data or does it mean tiered data plans for customers? Does it mean something else? Does it apply to all traffic? What about traffic over wireless phone networks? I'm not sure we know what version of the term the FCC decided to use.
Personally, I'd rather see the evilness play out first before deciding how to let government get involved.
There is an earlier claim that:
Not to trample on an ideology that I agree with on almost every issue, but clearly one answer (government == bad) is insufficient for all economic questions. It just does NOT hold up to reality, even if you define the "good" answer as the one resulting in the greatest economic growth!
The FASTEST growing major economy in the world (by an order of magnitude to the USA) is China, hardly a bastion of libertarianism.
Yes, but the ends do not always justify the means. Sometimes we take liberty over efficiency. Not saying that is an absolute, but it should be the first instinct until proven impossible.
Put me in the: "Someday maybe but not in prior restraint" club on FCC regulation.
Yep, I'm piling on.
Fuck net neutrality. Right in the orifice, with some sort of uncomfortable implement.
Bill Bennett covered this in detail literally years ago when Google was first pushing Net Neutrality (aka "Don't make us pay for our fair share").
ThePsion5: Well, my account is old, and I'm not working for a telco. I just want to have QoS available, and I'm not delusional enough to think either
A) "They want to charge me to use Facebook!!!!!!!!" (No, you didn't argue that. Yes, "Net Neut" people have, with their cute little graphics and uninformed rants based on, well, nothing at all, actually.)
B) That the State's dead hand is going to provide a better bandwidth experience than a provider that will lose my money if I go to its competitor.
Here where I live, and indeed for a whole lot of people, if my DSL provider tries to bone me, Cable will compete. Or Clear with their WiMax system. The vast majority of US consumers of broadband have multiple non-satellite options!
(PS. Are you being paid by Google? Or do accusations like that only work in one direction? )
Allen said: QOS should be handled at the local end, not in aggregate - just because I'm using torrents shouldn't mean I lose out compared to all your Skypers out there.
Well, if the pipe is 99-100% full, I think it damned well does mean exactly that, because their traffic uses very little bandwidth but is seriously negatively impacted by latency issues.
Whereas your BitTorrent traffic doesn't give a damn about latency, comparatively, but will soak up 100% of available bandwidth, by design, whenever possible.
I can't see how VOIP can even work on a "full pipe" - which is what BitTorrent makes every pipe without QoS.
And if we want to even pretend to be "fair", the giant brute protocol that wants 100% utilization can wait a few slices until the VOIP packets that want low latency can get transmitted.
If your moral argument boils down to "screw other traffic if it makes for even the slightest slowdown for mine", well... that works both ways, and there's no obvious reason why BT should be privileged over VOIP rather than the reverse.
Indeed, since more and more people using VOIP for their only home phone, or even for emergency services, well... I assure you that if you get lawmakers involved making a policy decision between "BT users stealing movies" and "Grandmas using MagicJack who can't call an ambulance because of network congestion", you are going to lose.
And you'd much rather lose a tiny bit of speed to QoS privileging VOIP latency than to the solution the lawmakers will come up with, because it will be less efficient and won't care at all about your traffic or preferences.
(This is why I oppose NN legislation, again. Because lawmakers are incompetent at network administration, just as they are in every other area.)
What I don't understand is how the major ISP's seem to enjoy the protections of common carriage but not the responsibilities.
If they have the rights of a common carrier, they should also treat all traffic alike. And that means serve all customers equally.
If they have the freedom to treat traffic differently, then they shouldn't be a common carrier. And that means accepting liability for the content they carry. Filesharing, piracy, porn, etc. should be their responsibility to police. If they want the rights to sell different service levels, they should accept the responsibility that goes with that.
Unfortunately, they currently do enjoy the best of both worlds. It's not a fair arrangement, and that alone makes a strong argument in favor of network neutrality as the only arrangement that is both fair and feasible.
To people who are against "net neutrality" because they dont trust government:
your line of argument seems to go like this:
1. "net neutrality" is a regulation (which means government will be involved)
2. government involvement is bad
3. therefore "net neutrality" is bad
I totally understand if you dont trust the government (i dont trust either).
But to think we dont need laws to protect our right (*not* to be censored by ISP) because I dont trust the government is naive at best.
Do you really need me to give you examples of laws that you may support that are regulations?
Think through your arguments before making a knee-jerk reaction.
On the other hand, if "net neutrality" affects you financially (cuz you are telco or cable operator) simply say so; there is nothing wrong in being selfish, its only human.
I have no problems with ISPs limiting bandwidth for certain usage (and would even deliberately choose one if it favours my usage) so long as:
- They are forced to make this information publicly available so that people can make appropriate choices.
- Changes to such limitations are either prohibited during the term of a contract, or else gives the user the option to terminate the contract immediately and receive a proportionate return of setup costs (eg. 50% if 6 months of a 12 month contract are up).
- They are prosecuted vigorously should they engage with their "competitors" in price fixing.
Anything less, and the barriers to competition would be too high for proper market forces to prevail. Corporations may talk up their love of a free market, but that is far from the truth. What they actually believe in is an unrestrained market where they can engage in anti-competitive behaviour to maximise their profits.
Trampstr beat me to it.
Apple is one of those companies that will do anything to convert our freedom into their benefit.
Facebook is another, although their attempts until now may be describes as clumsy. Very unlike Apple's.
You haven't written something in far too long.
Whoa...not the response I expected in the comments here. If net neutrality is killed, it means the barrier of entry for the next great Internet property is that much higher. Basically, I'll have to pay licensing fees for the rights to have my website served by the various ISPs.
Subscribers are already paying tons to get Internet access in America (compared to Japan where connectivity is as cheap as water, you'd think America was a third world country). What it boils down to is the major Internet providers are also television providers...comcast, time-warner, at&t, verizon. If Net Neutrality goes away, say goodbye to viable alternatives to over priced cable plans. Right now on Zune, I can pick which shows I want to see individually at $50 a season. I'm sure AppleTV has a similar offering...oh say buh bye to Hulu and Netflix too.
Between the Libertarian religionists,
(No, giving the power to the FCC to stop people from holding websites hostage is not the same as government controlling internet traffic),
the people who don't know what Net Neutrality is,
(Your VOIP will still work if we *keep* Net Neutrality. Yep, that's write, Net Neutrality is the status quo, one of the principles that makes the Internet so cool, for instance, by giving you the ability to go to some guys blog and comment on it. But if we lose Net Neutrality, then you'll get only one choice for VOIP, and who knows if you'll be able to reach anyone with it, and say bye bye to current insanely low rates if you do.)
and the paid trolls (way to work yourselves out of a job, fellas),
the internet is doomed. Thanks guys.
I take it you haven't paid attention to the Comcast lawsuits, eh? Where they were packet shaping and performing the exact behavior that Net Neutrality is designed to prevent?
Ash women leather boot