Net Neutrality Gumbo
I made it up to San Francisco Saturday for the USF-hosted symposium titled The Toll Roads? The Legal and Political Debate Over Net Neutrality. I dropped in just to listen, as most of the folks there, and discussions on the agenda, were more of the legal, academic, economic, and even political science flavors. I did see several folks I knew, but technical folks were definitely in scarce supply. I figured I’d share a random set of my notes from the the meeting here, until the USF folks make podcasts available.
There have been several incidents that seem to have thrown fuel on the fire as of late, many of these oft-revisited by several of the panelists. These incidents included:
- 2002 the High Tech Broadband Coalition (HTBC) petitioned the FCC to prevent cable companies from imposing restrictions on the connectivity enabled for broadband subscribers. The discussion was triggered by cable firms such as Comcast and Cox Communications adding user contract provisions that limited the types of access that might be provided, and the types of devices broadband subscribers were permitted to use at the customer premise.
- 2005 Madison River Communications, LLC for blocking VoIP access (e.g., Vonage) via port filtering. MRC was fined $15k by the FCC, and promised to play nice in the future. The Consent Decree cited section 201(b) of the Communications Act of 1934
- 2006 Verizon Wireless temporal blocking of Naral’s opt-in text messaging program
- Comcast’s throttling bittorrent and similar applications
- AT&T’s discussion of DRM enforcement, and the IFPI’s 2008 Digital Music Report, that’s scattered with sections like “Making ISP Responsibility a Reality in 2008” and “Time for Governments and ISPs to Take Responsibility”
You can find lots more, for instance here, but the ones above were mostly all that were cited explicitly during the symposium.
A bunch of charts were put up from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) Broadband Portal, mostly with the apparent intent of illustrating that the current broadband services models in the United States were lagging internationally in both speed and percentage availability — namely because of the current systems enabling of monopoly and duopoly practices is short-sighted at best, and such practices have huge implications on both affordability and accessibility. Some folks, such as Bob Frankston, taking a bit more radical line, argued that this is all simply a symptom of artificial scarcity, as much of his work outlines.
Another interesting topic discussed was that of Reverse Net Neutrality, in particular that of ESPN360’s behavior. The infamous “We’re sorry, but you don’t have access to ESPN360. Please contact your Internet Service Provider and ask them to partner with ESPN360”. ESPN360 was only permitting access to their sites from ISPs that partnered with them, or wrote them a check, or distributed their content via mobile video or other means, or something of the sort.
I quite liked the Lunch Keynote by Rachelle Chong, Commissioner, California Public Utilities Commission. In December of 2007 she authored “The 31 Flavors of the Net Neutrality Debate: Beware the Trojan Horse“, where she essentially argues that imposing any rules would likely have negative consequences. During the Q&A someone in the audience asked a set of questions that contained about three “What IFs”, to which she replied [paraprhased] “The world of what ifs.. Hrm.. I live in the world of real companies that make real money, and whatever it is that we do, or attempt to regulate, has real a impact on this.” She supported a practical perspective, but clearly understood the bigger issue as well.
The insights provided by economist types; Scott Wallsten, Tom Koutsky and Lawrence Spiwak were all helpful as well. I believe most of these folks settled on more pragmatic cost-benefits analysis side. I believe it was Lawrence (Larry) that said “Consumer frustration is NOT a market failure. Carrier stupidity is NOT a market failure.” George Ou shared the observation that this whole issue is being poisoned by political partisanship and that no one talks about actual legislation.
An argument for more transparency was made by some, stating that the ISPs and carriers should provide more information about what they block or throttle and why. Others quickly latched onto this, stating that ISPs and carriers should also be required to provide network design information such as full interconnection policies, over-subscription ratios, and other such information.
In opening statements by Timothy Wu, a Professor at Columbia Law School, he seemed to posit that in today’s information age we all rely on private firms, such as carriers, ISPs and search engines, to provide information, and that intermediaries imposing policy is an issue. However, I didn’t hear Tim and folks in the same camp huffing about $-biased search results returned by search engines, or the ESPN360 issue, for that matter.
Colette Vogele, who focuses on intellectual property law, specializing in media, technology, and arts, seems most concerned with the possibility that any traffic preference models employed by ISPs would hinder growth of smaller firms and individuals, thereby Keeping the Little Man Down. In particular, she cited Alive In Baghdad and Political Lunch, two such firms that operate on shoe-string budgets who could not make their content available if ISPs impose preferential treatment to Internet content.
Others mentioned content and mobile as primary concerns as well (beyond wired broadband), although well over the majority of the discussions were clearly about wireline and broadband, and were very U.S.-centric.
I was surprised I didn’t hear more arguments about the implications on end-user security (e.g., the fact that most of the world seems to be of the opinion that ISPs should do more to protect end users AND the greater Internet), or critical infrastructure availability, or emergency services implications and the like. I think there are many more details under the hood than most folks would care to acknowledge. For example, is it reasonable to throttle web or peer-peer traffic in order to ensure that an emergency services transaction receives the necessary network resources? How about network control protocols that provide Internet destination reachability information? or access authentication? or alerting and performance management? And, of course, what about the fact that Applications and Users vary widely in their politeness to others, as Richard Clarke of AT&T intuitively pointed out.
While I don’t think we ever settled anywhere near a common understanding of what Net Neutrality encompasses, nor what permissible discrimination would entail, or what transparency might reasonably require, amazingly, I do feel a bit more informed about arguments and motivators for many of the folks involved in this debate, and some of what’s currently being lumped into the Net Neutrality gumbo.
I also feel a bit more strongly about the need for more technologists to be involved in the debate, as there’s an obvious lack of technical expertise regarding how things actually work, and how what folks might care to overlook or marginalize today might have grave implications on tomorrow.