August 18, 2010 3:39PM

Net Neutrality and Unintended Consequences

Google and Verizon's proposed framework for net neutrality regulation has provoked cries of protest from advocates of aggressive regulation at places like Free Press and Public Knowledge. Some of the loudest objections have concerned the distinction between the "public Internet," which (at least for wireline broadband) would be subject to neutrality requirements, and vaguely defined "differentiated" or "managed" services—presumably things like IPTV or digital telephone service—which would not. This, according to the pro-regulation camp, would amount to a massive loophole that defeats the purpose of imposing neutrality rules. As Public Knowledge writes in their press release:

Thus, it is conceivable under the agreement that a network provider could devote 90% of its broadband capacity to these priority services and 10% to the best efforts Internet. If managed services are allowed to cannibalize the best efforts Internet, whatever protections are agreed to for the latter become, for all intents and purposes, meaningless.

This may be right. But if so, it sounds like a reason to be chary of the whole regulatory project. Neutrality or no neutrality, after all, there are a variety of ways to get digital content from producers to subscribers. Traditionally, the cable running to your home comprised separate dedicated channels for cable TV and broadband Internet traffic—though the trend now is toward a more efficient model where the TV content is also delivered as packet-switched data. If you'd rather watch Jersey Shore from the Jersey Shore, you can stream your video to a mobile device like a tablet or smartphone via Internet, but that's hardly the only way to get your Snooki fix: There's also, for instance, Digitial Video Broadcasting Satellite to Handheld (DVB-SH) or Qualcomm's MediaFLO operating on their own dedicated frequencies.  Imposing neutrality rules on wireless broadband (as the Google/Verizon proposal would not -- again, to the dismay of regulation fans) shouldn't affect these services.

My concern, then, is that if neutrality rules foreclose the possibility of cross-subsidy from the providers of subscription-based video streaming or VoIP services, these alternatives become more attractive. Maybe Netflix or Hulu Plus want to be able to offer a deal where your subscription price includes priority delivery of their packets to your smartphone or tablet, making non-WiFi video streaming feasible even if you haven't sprung for that kind of top-shelf bandwidth for all your wireless data. If neutrality regulation forbids that kind of deal, even with respect to these kinds of "managed services," one possible effect is to skew investment away from building out next-gen IP networks and toward these kinds of niche services, which strikes me as inefficient. Indeed, it's precisely the effect Public Knowledge seems to fear, and there's no obvious reason to suppose that it's going to be a big problem within IP-based broadband services, but not affect the choice between alternative modes of digital content delivery.

I should close with the caveat that I haven't looked very closely at the economics here, so while I think the effect I've just sketched is theoretically plausible enough, I couldn't say with any confidence how significant it's going to be in practice. That said, given that the case for neutrality regulation seems to rest on a smattering of genuine cases of bad behavior by providers and a whole lot of dire speculation about consumer-unfriendly practices that might emerge, I'll permit myself a little extra latitude to deal in hypotheticals.

May 17, 2010 10:25AM

Internet Regulation: How About This Ad Hominem?

The New York Times starts its commentary on proposed Internet regulations with a clever ad hominem argument: "The Republican attack on the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to classify broadband Internet access as a telecommunications service sounded a lot like the G.O.P. talking points on health care reform."

The GOP are being like themselves. Accordingly, Times readers should think their viewpoint is yucky. It's not the most substantive argument you'll come across today.

There are good reasons not to encumber the Internet with regulations designed for the telephone system. Here are four: The Internet is not like the telephone system, and the FCC  doesn't have the institutional ability to manage a changing, competitive system of networks. Extending "universal service" telephone taxes to the Internet will drive down adoption and frustrate universal service goals. The FCC is subject to capture by the very interests from which the Times thinks regulation would "protect." The Internet's large cadre of technologists and active consumers will do a better job than the FCC of protecting consumers' interests. 

But ad hominem is more fun. So let's ask why the New York Times didn't disclose that, as a content provider, it has a dog in the fight? Net neutrality regulation would act as a subsidy to content providers like the Times, ultimately paid by consumers as higher prices for Internet access.

April 6, 2010 1:04PM

The FCC Doesn’t Have Authority to Regulate the Internet – and Shouldn’t

In the fall of 2007, word emerged that Comcast had degraded the Internet traffic of some customers, whose use of a protocol called BitTorrent interfered with other Comcast customers' Internet access.

Comcast handled it badly, and sites like TechLiberationFront covered the "Comcast Kerfuffle" extensively. Consumers prefer unfiltered access to the Internet.

By springtime, Comcast had sorted things out and made a deal with BitTorrent to develop a neutral traffic-management protocol.

Four months later, the FCC weighed in, finding that Comcast had acted badly and telling Comcast not to do that again. Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit concluded that the FCC exceeded its authority and reversed the FCC's order against Comcast.

The court's decision marks another turning point in the debate over whether the federal government should regulate Internet access services. What's entertaining about it is that the problem was solved two years ago by market processes---sophisticated Internet users, a watchdog press, advocacy groups, and interested consumers communicating with one another over the Internet.

The next step will be for advocates to run to Congress, asking it to give the FCC authority to fix the problems of two years ago.  But slow-moving, technologically unsophisticated bureaucrats do not know better than consumers and technologists how to run the Internet. The FCC’s “net neutrality” hopes are nothing more than public utility regulation for broadband. If they get that authority, your online experience will be a little more like dealing with the water company or the electric company and a little less like using the Internet.

As I've noted before, 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 interest than most people realize.

The FCC doesn't have authority to regulate the Internet. Congress and the president shouldn't give it that authority.

December 28, 2009 2:41PM

‘Search Neutrality’ Regulation?

For more technical audiences, I wrote recently on the Tech Liberation Front blog about Google's claim to favor "openness" when, in fact, its crown jewels---search and ad serving---are closed systems.

Google is "free to be wrong about philosophy, of course," I wrote. "It doesn’t matter at all—except when Google tries to impose its philosophy on others. And in the debate over 'net neutrality' regulation it has done exactly that."

Now Google is in the sights of those proposing public utility regulation of Internet search. It would be entertaining ironic comeuppance for Google, but “search neutrality” regulation would ossify an innovative business and deprive consumers of the benefits of competition.

November 25, 2009 11:14AM

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.

October 30, 2009 8:41AM

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.