I'm serious. After this post, I'm done with Net Neutrality. Nothing else I can say will convince you if analogies, technical discussions, observations about regulatory regimes and economics, etc, failed to do so. If you don't accept my arguments, fine. I just hope that readers understand where I'm coming from (and hope the FCC, FTC and Congress continue holding the line).
The only reason I bring it up one last time is I read a couple posts over at CNET NewsBlog that spurred some final thoughts. First, this one from Tuesday:
The Net neutrality skirmish that swallowed up so much of Congress' technopolitical agenda last year may be gearing up for a comeback. A pair of senators who led the divisive push for the new regulations want everyone to know they haven't forgotten the cause.
Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) aired their views in a joint letter (PDF) filed with the Federal Communications Commission just before the Monday deadline for remarks on an open inquiry into "broadband industry practices."
The senators said they were pleased that the FCC was showing interest in the issue but "would have preferred the commission take the more concrete step of proposing rules to guarantee Internet freedom."
Internet freedom, in the senators' view, is the idea that a broadband operator like Comcast or AT&T should be legally prohibited from charging, say, YouTube extra fees to have its services prioritized over other online video sites. In recent years, cable and telephone companies have said it may be necessary to pursue such a business model to recover investments in new infrastructure, and they don't want regulators dictating how they manage their pipes.
Now, I've been accused of focusing too much on the technical aspects of QoS and such, thus ignoring business realities and the like. I take issue with that--I have learned a teensy bit about coupla non-techy things whilst teaching a variety of audiences in the industry the past 15 years--and simply note that I always begin with a technology discussion because I think legislators and other folks out there are misunderstanding what words like "prioritize" really mean in this context.
I covered Quality of Service in my epic post a while back and simply observe that prioritization is not about giving a person a chance to simply cut in line, but rather about giving different people in an aggregate sense a service that meets their needs. Not unlike having an express checkout at the supermarket: it's not unfair to give a line just for 10 items or less because those people are presumably not stocking up and just getting a few quick things on the way home or whatever, so shouldn't have to wait in line behind the person buying all the beer and ice cream for the month.
Here's where we start getting inflammatory words like "discrimination" when really what we're talking about classifying data so we know which line to put it in. Understandably, when people here these words thrown around, they fear that YouTube will be able to buy themselves a certain advantage over their competition and thus destroy the fabric of the Internet. Well, yes, they can pay for preferential delivery of their high-quality video service, and so could Yahoo or Joe Schlobotnik's Videos R Us. Then they all would be treated the same in terms of queuing, delivery paths and so on.
Yet non-paying content providers would still have their stuff delivered in the same manner as it is today in the "best effort" Internet. Consider another analogy: airlines generally preboard certain customers before take off. Why? Because some people need wheelchair assistance, or have a few unruly kids who need more time to settle in, etc. Letting them board first gives them "priority," but the rest of us still board eventually and we all get to our destination. However, changing who boards when just a little really makes the entire boarding process go more smoothly, thus improving the chances of an on-time departure and arrival, which is really all about improving service to everybody.
So in this sense, "prioritization" is inherently a good, not a dangerous, thing. Providers must be able to offer this technically to deliver multiple applications (flying customers) over a single infrastructure (the plane, not a truck, right Ted?). Therefore the FCC and FTC do not want to regulate this aspect of things: that's getting into business practices and micromanaging operations, which is not where we want ANY government entity to go so long as general fairness reigns.
The next issue is whether a provider can charge for such premium offerings. Of course the airline analogy above breaks down here, because nobody charges for pre-boarding per se. Although if you're a frequent flier and are part of affinity programs, you are in a sense being charged for status in buying more tickets or paying extra for first class. Anyway, I think my previous analogies of first class versus overnight shipping is more apt here.
If you accept that technically a network must be able to categorize and prioritize, then the question is simply whether you believe in the general capitalist principle that people pay more for more service? Or to put it another way, if you're really into Net Neutrality it is truest sense, I have a right to choose Low Rent Video service or pay extra to get Super High Def Video (of course, I'd rather get that for free, but I'm a realist).
Speaking of charing, at one point I was also told that I shouldn't conflate network evolution with specific business models. Indeed, I do not, yet that's precisely what the proposed NN legislation is all about. Telling providers they can't charge for specific services. Even in the Bad Old Tariff days, I would not have wanted Congress to come in and determine just how a service is technically deployed and billed for. Whose demesne was that? The FCC's and local utilities commissions'. Congress cannot adapt to changing realities quickly--just look at how long we've gone between communications overhaul legislation.
We don't want Ted Stevens tinkering with any of this stuff. That's why I was so pleased with the government's traditional hands-off approach to the Internet in terms of taxation and the like. Let it flourish and innovate without heavy regulation beyond general strategic principles that acknowledge the power and benefits of the Internet.
This is why the FCC came up with its broadband connectivity principles in 2005, to wit:
- consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice
- consumers are entitled to run applications and services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement
- consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network
- consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers
This is, in effect, what the FCC already has enforced when providers have broken the rules (e.g., Madison River). They did also announce an inquiry to get public comment which will also inform their posture, but really this is all they need and thus the Commission (along with the FTC) have decided they don't need any more Congressional authority to preserve Internet openness.
While I think it would be redundant, I can understand that maybe people want the specific force of law to back up these principles, and I'd be totally fine with this being put into a Net Neutrality amendment. They are reasonable, limited and precisely reflect what the Internet has always been and always should be.
And now the worst reason ever why somebody should be against NN:
Hollywood hasn't decided what it thinks about the whole "Net neutrality" debate, but it knows one thing: Any rules that would stunt roll-out of the next new whiz-bang filtering technologies or encourage unfettered sharing of copyrighted works over peer-to-peer networks would be very, very bad.
That's the gist of the 9-page comments (PDF) that the Motion Picture Association of America filed with the Federal Communications Commission this week. Monday was the deadline for comments for an FCC inquiry into "broadband industry practices," and most of the some 27,000 filings focused on the thorny issue of Net neutrality--that is, whether the FCC should impose a new policy prohibiting network operators from making special deals with content providers for priority service.
Whatever the FCC decides on that front, the MPAA said it's "crucial" not to take any steps that would inhibit the development and rollout of new technologies like watermarking, deep packet inspection, acoustic fingerprinting and other forms of filtering--all of which are still in the early stages and are far from perfect.
"Any policy efforts relating to Net Neutrality must promote the protection of intellectual property," MPAA lawyer's wrote. "It is crucial that FCC policies not interfere with the efforts of broadband companies and content providers of all kinds to solve problems of free riding."
A prime example of such "free riding," the MPAA said, is the "unauthorized" swapping of massive amounts of copyrighted materials via peer-to-peer networks. The group argued such activities pose a triple threat: to the copyrighted content creators, to the consumers who actually pay for the works and to the "light" Internet users who may be indirectly forced to pay for the high bandwidth use of those file swappers.
"It would be Pyrrhic indeed to adopt a set of principles asserting that consumers have a right to a cornucopia of excellent content, but fail to provide an environment in which such content can actually exist," the movie industry concluded.
This filing, which was noted Wednesday night by Ars Technica, isn't first to evoke copyright issues in this proceeding. The general counsel of NBC-Universal has already suggested the FCC should require broadband providers to be more proactive about filtering copyrighted content that traverses their networks. About a dozen public-interest and consumer advocacy groups hit back at those comments this week, arguing such a proposal is not only technologically impractical but could also threaten fair use and free expression rights.
The MPAA and NBC are taking a position is actually directly contradictory to NN from where I sit. Adding regulatory regimes to police content is anathema to the Internet's principles of neutrality and openness, goes beyond what network providers want to do in terms of classifying data, and really violates the broad principles outlined by the FCC.
Really, the MPAA is trying to invent an issue, just as Google is--I suspect the former will be less successful in rallying the Nutroot Hordes than the latter...