At the conclusion of Freedom to Connect (F2C), I felt challenged to grasp and explain a complex set of issues that are as much cultural and economic as technological. The elephant in the room at F2C was net neutrality, a concept that the average voter on the street won't grasp, unless she's read Ed Felten's nuts and bolts explanation along with the various comments that follow, or the broader and more detailed explanation in Wikipedia. The Internet's current structure doesn't do much to favor one source or type of content over another, but U.S. incumbent telcos are considering (actually planning) a system that will charge content sources an extra premium to move their data over the incumbents' considerable portion of the Internet. Question is, what happens to the other traffic as the Googles of the world get the priority they've paid for.
Susan Crawford has blogged about telco plans and their potential to "illegitimately [shape] network management in order to favor their own business plans."
The telephone companies are fighting for their life. It's clear that voice telephony will no longer fill their coffers as cellular and VOIP swallow that market. The latest proposed telecom legislation is a video franchising bill that will allow telcos to compete with cable companies in providing television and video on demand services. Joe Barton, the bill's sponsor, says "We have an opportunity to increase competition not only for cable services, but to also unleash a race for who can supply the fastest, most-sophisticated broadband connections that will provide video, voice, and data services. This race will only benefit consumers." From this perspective, the network is a platform for a radio/television model of content delivery - a broadcast model. Barton and others see this as a Very Good Thing, and that's a problem: that's a perception that could change the character of the Internet. On today's Internet the line between consumer and producer is almost nonexistent; anyone and become a "content provider," and the phenomenon is global, not US-centric. A cartel of centralized content providers and carriers would see this abundance of content and content providers as a threat to their profits from markets that are controlled and constrained. We're talking ginormous profits and complex value chains that could evaporate if they don't, again, "shape network management in order to favor their own business plans."
At the beginning of the second day of Freedom to Connect, wifi pioneer Colonel Dave Hughes demonstrated the Internet's reach with a Skype call to sherpa Mahabir Pun in Nepal. One of Dave's recent accomplishments was using wireless to establish an Internet connection at Mt. Everest Base Camp, a project he took on, not for the benefit of the climbers who can use the connection, but for the sherpas who would now have access to the Internet. Here he was demonstrating how that wireless connection brings the rest of the world to the formerly isolated sherpas, and vice versa. If the Internet had been developed as something more like cable television, for the benefit of the MPAA, RIAA, AT&T, and Time Warner, would this conversation with Mahabir, from DC to the top of the world, ever have taken place?
We live in a world that's been reshaped by access to the Internet; this kind of communication has become so much a part of our lives and of the promise of the future, we owe it to ourselves to understand what its about, so that we can grasp the cultural and economic impact of proposed technical developments. The move away from net neutrality creates a slippery slope: if the network differentiates for some kind of content, we may see more and more differentiation and outright blocking and throttling of content from some sources. This would mean the end of the Internet as we know it.
This has been long in coming. I recall conversations of metered bandwidth heating up around the time people started turning home PC's into mp3 servers and apparently eating up bandwidth and affecting service to neighborhoods. Yet as bandwidth issues fluctuate (bigger files vs bigger pipes, faster switches, etc), the corporate mindset solidifies. This discussion desperately needs to take place.
Thanks for raising this issue.
a good blog post! thnx
I have been studying this proposed deregulation of the corporate interests that provide broadband, and it is, from my vantage point, an issue that is of profound importance for the creation of an authentic democracy in America. The plans of these providers, from what I have read, appear to be intended to stratify not only the quality of websites, depending upon the amount of broadband that a site purchases, but also according to the level of service that is provided to private residencies and so forth. This will, undoubtedly, only reinforce the inequalities already present in American society with respect to the distribution of cultural capital by limiting access of the less wealthy to spaces that require a higher-level of service. The result will be a state of the Internet where the cultural differences between and among the strata comprising the socio-economic structure will be reinforced and exacerbated by this hypothetical condition of the new Net.
The I have considered reinstituting the concept designating the social spaces traditionally referred to as the Commons, and applying it to the corporal equipment and the virtual representative spaces generated from physical materials- the Internet. As far as use is concerned, rules, which would prevent a tragedy of the Commons, could be developed from the institution of a virtual common law that could be augmented and modified according to the extingencies that arise with new circumstances.
Sorry about the spelling errors,
It's worth noting that Google has publically said that they will not pay the telcos for extra bandwidth. (Not that they always keep their word.) But the point is taken about other large content providers.
I'm skeptical that these laws would affect how we use the Internet every day. I think they're much more relevant to the next wave of broadband technology, which will require a modern infrastructure to ensure that important information (like medical records) reaches its destination. Anybody that messed with you or I getting our news or email wouldn't keep our business for very long.
Net neutrality is an interesting and complex issue. The knee-jerk response is to demand that government do something to preserve, but I think reasonable examination of the issue shows that to be the wrong move. First and foremost there is no problem that needs to be addressed by Congress. Furthermore, no serious company would block content, they would lose all of their customers. It's competition that makes the world go 'round.
I'm with Paulaner...the market will not tolerate a company that limits, degrades or otherwise blocks content.
Important post, Jon. Wish i could've been at F2C.
Curious that some of the issues i consider most worldchanging of all find nary a response. This post of Alex's, fer instance.
Must we forever repeat Lessig's refrain?
Public Knowledge on net neutrality.
Working Assets' co-founder Peter Barnes, with some preliminary thoughts on the implications of and alternative structures for property rights.
And yes, Rheingold on cooperation.
I agree that it's unlikely that any company will block content directly, however prioritization of some content might have the effect of indirectly blocking other content.
Incidentally, no regulation is necessary to allow network operators to offer tiered service. The proposal was to add an amendment to proposed telecom legislation that would prevent them from doing so.
The real issue here is about vision: what is the Internet for? Many of us have begun to see it as a kind of public utility equally available to all - abundantly available. Some would like to see it primarily as a conduit for content that is relatively scarce, therefore expensive. We now have an enforced, artificial scarcity of broadband service, which is why it tends to be expensive. In other countries, people are paying the equivalent of twenty bucks for service that's ten times fatter/faster.
Network operators here, especially incumbent telcos who are losing voice service to VOIP technology, want to remain profitable and to maximize their profits. If they find the most obvious way to do so is to control and constrain the Internet, they'll do it - not because they're evil people, but because their charge is to maximize profit. The two ways suggested to keep them in check are market forces and legislation. The reason legislation seems necessary is that the telcos, formerly part of a monopoly, still think like a monopoly, and use effective and expensive lobbying to stifle competiton.
Jon, throughout your argument, there is the frequent use of concepts like "might" "could" and the like. So you're arguing for things that might or could happen, right? Why not let the market see if in fact that happens and then react, instead of foisting a whole new beaurocracy of government regulations and regulators on a business segment that "might" have a problem down the road?
Also, one thing rarely pointed out in comparing broadband in other countries to the U.S. is the fact that those countries are almost exclusively Socialist. Yes, they pay less for faster broadband, but they also pay $8 for a gallon of gas, $6 for a gallon of milk and have to wait 3 months before they can get in to see a doctor. All things considered, I'll take the free market economy anyday!
Jon, Thanks for the interesting and thoughtful discussion--it's not everywhere in the blogoshpere that people can disagree nicely and with respect for others' opinion.
Anyway...I think Maven makes a good point. Is it wise for Congress to legislate/ regulate against hypotheticals?
Jon- If it has come to be held that the internet is a public utility than I am really disappointed in my fellow Americans. That mindset would perpetuate a belief that somehow everyone has a right to internet access. Essentially the internet is a public place, but access to it is through private property. And just like any other property, if people want to use it they should have to pay.