Tag: Internet

‘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.

Whitehouse.gov Switches to Drupal

There was some buzz earlier this year when the White House used the free, open-source Drupal content management platform for Recovery.gov. Now the administration’s marquee Web site Whitehouse.gov will be using it.

The AP story linked just above does a good job of recounting the benefits of open source in this application: chiefly, low cost and high security.

Arnold Kling wrote recently on the Library of Economics and Liberty blog relating the work Elinor Ostrom did to win the Nobel prize in economics to how the Internet enables private provision of public goods—no regulation, little to no centralized authority at all.

Open source is nothing if not an example of that, and it’s good to see this use of open source joining many others across the big, beautiful Internet.

From the Oxymoron File: The Neutral Subsidy

Peter Van Doren points me to some revealing passages in a new article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. In “Subsidizing Creativity through Network Design: Zero-Pricing and Net Neutrality,” Robin S. Lee and Tim Wu caution against tiered pricing for Internet access services, writing:

[U]nless sufficient bandwidth and quality of service can be guaranteed for the “free” Internet, there is a risk that … tiering will serve to sidestep de facto prohibition on termination fees… . [A] priced-priority system could simply become a de facto fee charged for all content providers if the “free” Internet was of sufficiently poor quality and consumers shifted their usage behavior accordingly… . [T]his might dampen the introduction of new content and services and eliminate the subsidy for content innovation currently provided by net neutrality.

Locking in net neutrality by regulation would lock in a subsidy to content providers. Lee and Wu prefer it, and many of us may like the results, but it’s hard to call a subsidy regime “neutral.”

Is This Intervention Necessary?

So asks the Washington Post in a cogent editorial about FCC Chairman Jules Genachowski’s speech proposing to regulate the terms on which broadband service is provided. (More from TLJ, Julian Sanchez, and me.) The WaPo piece nicely dismantles the few incidents and arguments that underlie Genachowski’s call for regulation.

As the debate about “ ‘net neutrality” regulation continues, I imagine it will move from principled arguments, such as whether the government should control communications infrastructure, to practical ones: Will limitations on ISPs’ ability to manage their networks cause Internet brown-outs and failures? (This is what Comcast was trying to avoid when it ham-handedly degraded the use of the BitTorrent protocol on its network.) Will regulation bar ISPs from shifting costs to heavy users, cause individual consumers to pay more, and hasten a move from all-you-can-eat to metered Internet service? We’ll have much to discuss.

Preemptive Regulation of the Internet

Julian Sanchez has already done a fine job of assessing FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s speech announcing his plan for federal regulation of the Internet. There was nothing really new in it. No substantial problems justifying regulation have emerged, and—Genachowski’s claims to modest aims aside—any ‘net neutrality regulation is likely to be a substantive morass. Says Julian:

[I]t absolutely reeks of the sort of ad hoc ‘I know it when I see it’ standard that leaves telecoms wondering whether some innovative practice will bring down the Wrath of Comms only after resources have been sunk into rolling it out.”

If the FCC goes ahead with regulating the Internet, the public will get a good look at what closed systems are really like. The FCC’s retrograde “Electronic Comment Filing System” doesn’t even allow full-text searches of submissions. This is but one failing the Internet’s engineers all over the country—and not just in big telcos—will run into dealing with the FCC.  It’s laughable that this outdated telecommunications bureaucracy is trying to take over the Internet.

A complex array of network protocols and business processes make up “the Internet.” The Internet’s end-to-end architecture is good engineering because it is naturally open, flexible, and conducive to communications freedom. The Internet empowers consumers to fend for themselves, such as in their dealings with Internet Service Providers. When Comcast degraded the Bitorrent protocol, it took just weeks for consumer pushback to end the practice. The FCC opened an inquiry long after the matter was settled.

But some politicians and the FCC’s lawyers think their slow-moving, technologically unsophisticated bureaucracy knows better than consumers and technologists how to run the Internet. The FCC’s “net neutrality” plans are nothing more than public utility regulation for broadband. With federal regulation, your online experience will be a little more like dealing with the water company or the electric company and a little less like … well, the Internet!

As Julian said, Tim Lee’s is the definitive paper. The Internet is far more durable than regulators and advocates imagine. And regulators are far less capable of neutrally arbitrating what’s in the public interests than they imagine either.

Eye of Neutrality, Toe of Frog

FCC Chairman Julius GenachowskiI won’t go on at too much length about FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s speech at Brookings announcing his intention to codify the principle of “net neutrality” in agency rules—not because I don’t have thoughts, but because I expect it would be hard to improve on my colleague Tim Lee’s definitive paper, and because there’s actually not a whole lot of novel substance in the speech.

The digest version is that the open Internet is awesome (true!) and so the FCC is going to impose a “nondiscrimination” obligation on telecom providers—though Genachowski makes sure to stress this won’t be an obstacle to letting the copyright cops sniff through your packets for potentially “unauthorized” music, or otherwise interfere with “reasonable” network management practices.

And what exactly does that mean?

Well, they’ll do their best to flesh out the definition of “reasonable,” but in general they’ll “evaluate alleged violations…on a case-by-case basis.” Insofar as any more rigid rule would probably be obsolete before the ink dried, I guess that’s somewhat reassuring, but it absolutely reeks of the sort of ad hoc “I know it when I see it” standard that leaves telecoms wondering whether some innovative practice will bring down the Wrath of Comms only after resources have been sunk into rolling it out. Apropos of which, this is the line from the talk that really jumped out at me:

This is not about protecting the Internet against imaginary dangers. We’re seeing the breaks and cracks emerge, and they threaten to change the Internet’s fundamental architecture of openness. [….] This is about preserving and maintaining something profoundly successful and ensuring that it’s not distorted or undermined. If we wait too long to preserve a free and open Internet, it will be too late.

To which I respond: Whaaaa? What we’ve actually seen are some scattered and mostly misguided  attempts by certain ISPs to choke off certain kinds of traffic, thus far largely nipped in the bud by a combination of consumer backlash and FCC brandishing of existing powers. To the extent that packet “discrimination” involves digging into the content of user communications, it may well run up against existing privacy regulations that require explicit, affirmative user consent for such monitoring. In any event, I’m prepared to believe the situation could worsen. But pace Genachowski, it’s really pretty mysterious to me why you couldn’t start talking about the wisdom—and precise character—of some further regulatory response if and when it began to look like a free and open Internet were in serious danger.

If anything, it seems to me that the reverse is true: If you foreclose in advance the possibility of cross-subsidies between content and network providers, you probably never get to see the innovations you’ve prevented, while discriminatory routing can generally be detected, and if necessary addressed, if and when it occurs.  And the worst possible time to start throwing up barriers to a range of business models, it seems to me, is exactly when we’re finally seeing the roll-out of the next-generation wireless networks that might undermine the broadband duopoly that underpins the rationale for net neutrality in the first place. In a really competitive broadband market, after all, we can expect deviations from neutrality that benefit consumers to be adopted while those that don’t are punished by the market. I’d much rather see the FCC looking at ways to increase competition than adopt regulations that amount to resigning themselves to a broadband duopoly.

Instead of giving wireline incumbents a new regulatory stick to whack new entrants with, the FCC could focus on facilitating exploitation of “white spaces” in the broadcast spectrum or experimenting with spectral commons to enable user-owned mesh networks. The most perverse consequence I can imagine here is that you end up pushing spectrum owners to cordon off bandwidth for application-specific private networks—think data and cable TV flowing over the same wires—instead of allocating capacity to the public Internet, where they can’t prioritize their own content streams.  It just seems crazy to be taking this up now rather than waiting to see how these burgeoning markets shake out.