Tag: net neutrality

Mistaken Moral Equivalency

Former Google executive turned Obama administration deputy chief technology officer Andrew McLaughlin made some unfortunate comments at a law school technology conference last week equating private network management to government censorship as it is practiced in China.

By many accounts, President Obama’s visit to China was unimpressive. It apparently included a press conference at which no questions were allowed and government censorship of the president’s anti-censorship comments. On its heels, McLaughlin equated Chinese government censorship with network management by U.S. Internet service providers.

“If it bothers you that the China government does it, it should bother you when your cable company does it,” McLaughlin said. That line is wrong on at least two counts.

First, your cable company doesn’t do it. There have been two cases in which ISPs interfered with traffic in ways that are generally regarded as wrongful.  Comcast slowed down BitTorrent file sharing traffic in some places for a period of time, did a poor job of disclosing it, and relented when the practice came to light. (People who don’t know the facts will argue that the FCC stepped in, but market pressures had solved the problem before the FCC did anything.) The second was a 2005 case in which a North Carolina phone company/ISP called Madison River Communications allegedly blocked Vonage VoIP traffic.

In neither of these anecdotes did the ISP degrade Internet traffic because of its content—because of the information any person was trying to communicate to another. Comcast was trying to make sure that its customers could get access to the Internet despite some bandwidth hogs on its network. Madison River was apparently trying to keep people using its telephone lines rather than making Internet phone calls. That’s a market no-no, but not censorship.

Second, if the latter were happening, Chinese government censorship and corporate censorship would have no moral equivalency. In a free country, the manager of a private network can say to customers, “You may not transmit certain messages over our network.” People who don’t like that contract term can go to other networks, and they surely would. (Tim Lee’s paper, The Durable Internet: Preserving Network Neutrality Without Regulation, shows that ownership of networks and platforms does not equate to control of their content.)

When the government of China forces networks and platforms to remove content that it doesn’t like, that demand comes ultimately from the end of a gun. Governments like China’s imprison and kill their people for expressing disfavored views and for organizing to live freer lives. This has no relationship to cable companies’ network management practices, even when these ISPs deviate from consumer demand.

McLaughlin is a professional colleague who has my esteem. I defended Google’s involvement in the Chinese market during his tenure there. But if he lacks grounding in the fundamentals of freedom—thinking that private U.S. ISPs and the Chinese government are part of some undifferentiated mass of authority—I relish the chance to differ with him.

VOIP News: Cato Is Tops! But Let’s Clarify Something

Though I hadn’t heard of it before, I was delighted to see a publication called VOIP News cite the Cato Institute as one of 15 “Greatest Enemies of Net Neutrality.” As VOIP News says, we are indeed a “voice of reason during political debates.”

Alas, I’m selectively quoting. What they actually said, snidely, was that Cato is a “hired voice of reason during political debates, because of its pseudo-academic affiliations.” (I don’t know why they italicized “voice of reason” - I always thought Reason was the voice of reason.)

But my selective quotation is as accurate as the selective research that VOIP News did for this fluffy hit piece. You see, Cato recently published a lengthy paper that articulates the benefits of net neutrality (referred to as the end-to-end principle).

Where do you find that in the paper? Here’s the first paragraph of the executive summary:

An important reason for the Internet’s remarkable growth over the last quarter century is the “end-to-end” principle that networks should confine themselves to transmitting generic packets without worrying about their contents. Not only has this made deployment of internet infrastructure cheap and efficient, but it has created fertile ground for entrepreneurship. On a network that respects the end-to-end principle, prior approval from network owners is not needed to launch new applications, services, or content.

The paper expresses well-founded concerns about net neutrality regulation—taking a good engineering practice and making a mandate of it for lawyers and bureaucrats to implement. From the executive summary’s third paragraph:

New regulations inevitably come with unintended consequences. Indeed, today’s network neutrality debate is strikingly similar to the debate that produced the first modern regulatory agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission. Unfortunately, rather than protecting consumers from the railroads, the ICC protected the railroads from competition by erecting new barriers to entry in the surface transportation marketplace. Other 20th-century regulatory agencies also limited competition in the industries they regulated. Like these older regulatory regimes, network neutrality regulations are likely not to achieve their intended aims.

It’s tough sledding, working through most of a one-page executive summary. But many publications go that far in researching the pieces they publish.

I do sincerely appreciate the nod to our prominence in this debate. I hope VOIP News does a better job of portraying where we stand and why in the future.

Siding with the Geeks on Network Neutrality

One of the perennial tropes of the network neutrality debate has been the tendency of the pro-regulation side to paint it as a David-and-Goliath struggle between big, evil corporations and the little guy. Way back in 2006, James Gattuso pointed out how silly this is: in fact, the push for network neutrality is backed by some of the largest companies in Silicon Valley. Julian points out a particularly lazy example of this kind of ad hominem that happens to target Cato: It seems that we’re one of the “15 greatest enemies of net neutrality.” And that along with CEI, Cato “seems to draw its funding from a smattering of every major corporation ever to fund lobbyists.”

As Julian points out, if “VoIP News” had done its homework, it might have discovered that Cato makes its annual report freely available online. Then they they would have noticed that corporate support accounts for about 1 percent of Cato’s budget, and that none of Cato’s corporate funders are major opponents of network neutrality regulation.

Shoddy reporting aside, the “VoIP News” article does actually highlight an important point: the people who built the Internet are deeply split on the issue of regulating the Internet, with eminent computer scientists including Bob Kahn (co-inventor of the Internet’s TCP/IP protocols with Vint Cerf) and Dave Farber (another networking pioneer) on the anti-regulation side. And based on conversations I’ve had here at Princeton, Kahn and Farber are far from the only computer scientists who are skeptical that the FCC is up to the job of regulating the Internet.

In a vacuous appearance on Rachel Maddow last week, blogger Xeni Jardin cited Vint Cerf’s support of regulation and urged viewers to “side with the geeks who actually built the Internet.” She did not, of course, mention that Kahn and Farber, who fit that description as well as Cerf does, are on the other side. “The geeks” are as split on this issue as everyone else.

Update: Tim Carney has an excellent article making a similar point: Internet companies like Google and Amazon, who have lobbied hard for network neutrality, gave overwhelmingly to Obama over McCain in the 2008 election. This doesn’t prove Obama and Chairman Genachowski are insincere in their support for network neutrality. But it does mean we should take both side’s arguments with a grain of salt.

How Did the FCC Come to Acquire This Power?

Jeff Eisenach and Adam Thierer have a great essay in The American honoring the 50th anniversary of Ronald Coase’s article “The Federal Communications Commission.” It’s timely given the FCC’s proposal to establish public utility-style regulation of the Internet under the banner “net neutrality,” and it’s a good general warning to Neo-Progressives who “see market failure as the source of most problems, and government as the centerpiece of most solutions.”

‘Net Neutrality’ Regs: Corporate Interests Do Battle

Some people have labored under the impression that “net neutrality” regulation was about the government stepping in to ensure that large corporations would not control the Internet. Now that the issue is truly joined, it is clear (as exhibited in this Wall Street Journal story) that the debate is about one set of corporate interests battling another set of corporate interests about the Internet, each seeking to protect or strengthen its business model. The FCC is surfing the debate pursuing a greater role for itself, meaning more budget and power.

Tim Lee’s paper, The Durable Internet, dispels the idea that owners of Internet infrastructure can actually control the Internet. The preferred approach to “net neutrality” is to let Internet users decide what they want from their ISPs and let ISPs and content companies do unmediated battle with one another to create and capture the greatest value from the Internet ecosystem.

If the FCC were to reduce its power by freeing up more wireless spectrum—either selling it as property or dedicating it to commons treatment—competition to provide Internet service would strengthen consumers’ hands.

Understanding the Consequences of Internet Regulation

In an effort to achieve “network neutrality” online, the FCC is starting to write new regulations for Internet providers.  Reuters reports:

U.S. communications regulators voted unanimously Thursday to support an open Internet rule that would prevent telecom network operators from barring or blocking content based on the revenue it generates.

The proposed rule now goes to the public for comment until Jan. 14, after which the Federal Communications Commissions will review the feedback and possibly seek more comment. A final rule is not expected until the spring of next year.

Cato Director of Information Policy Studies Jim Harper appeared on Fox News this week to discuss the FCC decision. “This is governmental tinkering with a market place that is working really well and growing right now,” said Harper. “The last thing we need is to cut that off.”

Watch:

There are ways to achieve net neutrality without regulation, says Timothy B. Lee:

An important reason for the Internet’s remarkable growth over the last quarter century is the “end-to-end” principle that networks should confine themselves to transmitting generic packets without worrying about their contents. Not only has this made deployment of internet infrastructure cheap and efficient, but it has created fertile ground for entrepreneurship. On a network that respects the end-to-end principle, prior approval from network owners is not needed to launch new applications, services, or content.

…Like these older regulatory regimes, network neutrality regulations are likely not to achieve their intended aims. Given the need for more competition in the broadband marketplace, policymakers should be especially wary of enacting regulations that could become a barrier to entry for new broadband firms.

Read the whole thing.