Rethinking network neutrality

For whatever reasons, network neutrality has become more of a political football than a technical principle. Lately, however, its advocates have come up with some original new approaches that may de-politicize the matter to some degree, and cause progress (or at least conversation) to occur.

One is John Palfrey’s Citizen’s Choice Framework for Net Neutrality. The key paragraphs:

In this memo, I propose that the FCC should pursue a compromise solution on Net Neutrality that both preserves the open Internet and permits opportunity for reasonable product differentiation and network management on IP networks.

The central tenet of this plan would be to locate the choice to differentiate services with the consumer, not with the Internet Service Provider. The overriding policy goal is to create incentives for increasing bandwidth infrastructure rather than monetizing or encouraging scarcity. And the plan should prioritize Managed Services that support national purposes as set forth in the National Broadband Plan.

Another is On Advancing the Open Internet by Distinguishing it from Specialized Services. Telephony and television are two of those specialized services. Distinguishing those from the open Internet, where (as Barbara van Schewick talked about yesterday) most of the innovation takes place, is critical. Especially since the open Internet today arrives at most of our doors as a secondary or tertiary service in the “triple play” offerings of telephone and television companies.

I think most of us in the U.S. have never experienced truly neutral Internet service from a phone or cable company, and that’s been one of the problems from the start. But we have experienced openness, and even the least technical among us know the difference between what we can do on the Net and what we can do with a phone (even “smart” ones — all of which are still crippled to some degree by phone companies) or a TV set top box. That’s why net neutrality still resonates as a label with users. They want it, even if they can’t define it, and even if no law is passed protecting it. The “it” is openness and support for anything that wants to use the Net. Not bias of the Net’s physical and logical infrastructure for specialized purposes.

The biggest of these will be television, most of which has already moved off the air and the rest of which will eventually move off of cable as well. TV is the elephant about to be digested in the Internet’s snake of time. We want the snake to survive the meal, not to become the meal. To prevent the latter from happening, we need new ideas, new proposals, new businesses, new understandings and undertakings by entities both public and private. These two proposals are both good efforts of that kind.

14 comments

  1. Frank Wilhoit’s avatar

    Network neutrality is, has been, and will be about only one thing: censorship.

  2. David W Johnson’s avatar

    The discussion of net neutrality is alot like the debate of health care. If we’re allowed to have everything equally, eventually there creates a shortage. Grandma doesn’t need OC3 speed to email her grandkids. Grandkids want OC3 speed to play interactive war games with hundreds of people around the world.

    Treat everyone equally and grandma’s internet bill will quadruple. Just about every commerce service available is a tiered service. Why should the internet be any different.

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    David, did you look at John Palfrey’s proposal? It’s right up the alley you outline. Leave the choice up to the user. But at least have some choice there.

    Also, FWIW, I know at least one grandma, age 98, who wants to do live video over Skype with grandkids and great-grandkids. But with crippled upstream speed (biased by cable for one-way TV), that’s hard. (BTW, none of the net neutrality proposals I know of address the severe-asymmetry issue. Not saying they should, either. I believe demand for it will eventually dawn on the providers.)

  4. Brett Glass’s avatar

    “Network neutrality” is a buzzphrase without a definition. It’s not possible even to talk about it, because no two parties agree on what they’re talking about! However, there’s one thing that is clear: the regulations which the FCC has proposed, and for which Berkman has been incessantly lobbying on behalf of its patron Google, would be a disaster for consumers. They’d drive away broadband investment, destroy the quality of Internet service, kill jobs, raise rates, and limit consumers’ competitive options by driving small, competitive, and wireless ISPs out of business. And this would be done for the benefit of large campaign contributor Google, which wants to see its monopolies protected and ISPs deprived of any opportunity to make a decent living.

    Berkman, which has received substantial amounts of money from Google, is all in on this. That’s why it received the intellectually dishonest Barbara Van Schewick with open arms, despite the falsehoods that she repeatedly peddles on behalf of Google. (The group for which she works at the Stanford Law School receives large amounts of money from Google also, and serves such clients well.) And that’s why it has hosted several forums recently in which the slate of speakers was slanted toward conclusions desired by Google. Differing opinions? Real world facts? Sorry, they’re not welcome.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Brett, I agree that Network Neutrality is a troublesome concept. That’s one reason I wrote this post. It also won’t go away, not matter how much people disagree about what it means. For awhile I thought it was a dead issue, both politically and among the general population; but it’s not.

    I thought both John Palfrey’s and Barbara van Schewick’s proposals were thoughtful and worth considering, which is why I pionted to them here.

    As for Berkman, you’re entitled to think and say what you like. For what it’s worth, I don’t believe my own thoughts and ideas about the Net have been influenced one bit by whatever Google has given to Berkman. But I speak only for myself. Others more qualified to speak for Berkman can weigh in if they wish.

  6. Brett Glass’s avatar

    Van Schewick’s “proposal” is simply a sop to Google, which pays a substantial portion of her salary through “gifts” to Stanford. Palfrey’s is intended to ensure the maximum degree of government micromanagement of ISPs’ networks and businesses. (He recommends a government mandate that ISPs allocate scarce resources in such a way as to minimize the return on their hard work and their investors’ money.)

    I wish I could think better of Berkman, but after seeing the recent Webcast from the director of Berkman and Larry Lessig (who isn’t technically part of Berkman now, but owes his salary while at Stanford and the development of his career to Google), it’s clear that whatever Google wants from Berkman, Google gets.

    It’s just a shame that all of these people are fighting against the public interest. Those of us who actually work for a living have to use our almost nonexistent free time to fight back.

  7. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Brett, you are making ad hominem arguments here, particularly of the sort called association fallacy. A person’s association with an organization that gets some of its money from Google does not make that person a tool of Google. If that were the case then everybody at Stanford would be a tool of Google and everybody at Harvard and MIT a tool of Microsoft.

    If you wish to convince, make a case. (And I do believe you have one. Just not one that rests on Google’s badness.)

    If you wish for effects, I suggest contacting John Palfrey or Barbara van Schewick personally, and respectfully (leave Google out of it), and explaining how their proposals have problems, or what could be done to fix them. Both of them are in the business of understanding stuff first, and recommending stuff later. Go for understanding. It’s the sweet spot you need to hit.

  8. Brett Glass’s avatar

    Doc, I don’t know if you’ve ever been in academia, but when I was there as a grad student it was made very clear to me: big contributors were far more important “customers” to the University than were students, who were considered to be expendable resources. And those who want to advance within the University, and have prosperous and prestigious careers, had best keep those customers satisfied. This doesn’t mean, of course, that every janitor at Stanford has to pay homage to Google. But a professor at the Law School certainly has to, because Google gives so much money to its Center for the Internet and Society.

    If Palfrey or Van Schewick (especially) were making statements that could be explained away as simple errors, it might be worth talking to them. But when someone so obviously has an agenda, and is willing to publish blatant falsehoods to support it, one is wasting one’s breath.

    Take, for example, Van Schewick’s repeated claims that Telus – a Canadian ISP – censored a legitimate union Web site during a strike. The truth is that

    (a) The site was not that of the union but of an individual who happened to be a member of it.

    (b) The site contained death threats against employees who dared to cross picket lines, as well as pictures of them and directions to their houses. Such threats are illegal, and so are not covered by ANYONE’S definition of “network neutrality.”

    (c) In one case, the threats were accompanied by ethnic and racial slurs, including a claim that a dark-skinned Indian employee who crossed a picket line was a “terrorist.” (In fact, it was the posters who were terrorists. So perturbed was the employee that he packed up his family and left town to avoid potential violence or arson.)

    (c) Telus had filed suit to have the threats removed from the Web site, and the owner’s own lawyer had admitted – in a letter that was made public – that the content was “reprehensible” and that Telus was justified in blocking it.

    I pointed all of this out to Ms. Van Schewick, in a public forum, and she acknowledged receipt of the message that did so. Yet, she continues to make the same false claims about the incident. You’d think that Stanford would note punish such blatant intellectual dishonesty once it was reported to them – or that Berkman would take note of it before inviting her to speak and repeat the same falsehoods. But they haven’t.

    So, you see, it does no good to contact these corporate shills personally. They are being compensated for lying. They have no soul and no conscience. And they certainly don’t care about any untoward effects that their actions might have on the public.

  9. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Brett, I don’t know enough about Barbara van Schewick’s claims, or yours, to address them here. But the nasty personal characterizations in your summary paragraph don’t encourage me to bother looking into them.

  10. Brett Glass’s avatar

    Doc, it is not my fault that these people are acting so disingenuous and nasty. Please don’t turn a blind eye.

  11. Doc Searls’s avatar

    “These people” include John Palfrey, a friend and colleague. Nobody who knows John would describe him in any way as “disingenuous” or “nasty.” Again, I suggest you contact him personally, and respectfully, and make your case. I am sure he’d listen. The proposal he put forward is already a move away from other positions on Net Neutrality. Bear that in mind.

  12. Brett Glass’s avatar

    Doc, you may have worked with some of these people, but the intellectual dishonesty and corruption that we are seeing with regard to “network neutrality” – mainly due to Google’s money – is so pervasive that even people whom you respect may have slipped into going along. I urge you to take a hard look at their claims, beginning with the one I mention above by Van Schewick because it is the most blatant. See http://www.brettglass.com/Telus-VFCSettlement.pdf (copy of public court record).

  13. Brett Glass’s avatar

    P.S. – I see that, at least as of today, you have not yet looked at the above link. I hope that you won’t remain in denial and continue to hide your head in the sand with regard to this very serious issue.

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