Building a better Internet

The Boy Scouts are on the outs with all right-thinking and decent people for their intolerance of gay scoutmasters, although all the shrieking over Mark Foley would almost make you think they were just unfashionably ahead of the curve. In case anybody’s wobbling, there is something to set you straight. The Boy Scouts are oppressing pirates with a new “activity badge” discouraging illegal file sharing:

A Boy Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, etc., etc. If he’s in the Los Angeles area, he also respects copyrights.

Tens of thousands of Boy Scouts here will be able to earn an activity patch for learning about the evils of downloading pirated movies and music. The patch shows a film reel, a music CD and the international copyright symbol, a “C” enclosed in a circle.

The movie industry developed the curriculum as a way of emphasizing the ills of piracy to a generation that has grown up finding free music and video clips on the Internet.

That’s got to be very upsetting to such leaders of the Pirates’ Rights lobby as Larry Lessig, the Stanford law professor who argues that illegal file sharing is central to enlightened democracy. As if poor Lessig doesn’t have enough on his plate, what with being made into a non-entity by former FCC chief William Kennard in the New York Times last Saturday.

Kennard had to the gall to frame the idiotic network neutrality debate as a battle between Super-Wealthy companies such as Google and Amazon and Merely-Rich cable and telephone companies:

Unfortunately, the current debate in Washington is over “net neutrality” — that is, should network providers be able to charge some companies special fees for faster bandwidth. This is essentially a battle between the extremely wealthy (Google, Amazon and other high-tech giants, which oppose such a move) and the merely rich (the telephone and cable industries). In the past year, collectively they have spent $50 million on lobbying and advertising, effectively preventing Congress and the public from dealing with more pressing issues.

As chairman of the F.C.C., I put into place many policies to bridge the narrowband digital divide. The broadband revolution poses similar challenges for policymakers. America should be a world leader in broadband technology and deployment, and we must ensure that no group or region in America is denied access to high-speed connections.

We are falling short in both areas. Since 2000, the United States has slipped from second to 19th in the world in broadband penetration, with Slovenia threatening to push us into 20th. Studies by the federal government conclude that our rural and low-income areas trail urban and high-income areas in the rate of broadband use. Indeed, this year the Government Accountability Office found that 42 percent of households have either no computer or a computer with no Internet connection.

One thing’s for certain about the net neutrality regulations offered by Congressional Democrats and rogue Republicans: they’re not exactly going to stimulate faster build-out of fiber to the home, whatever their other virtues may be.

So where does that leave the heroic few like Lessig who’ve jumped aboard Google’s bandwagon in demanding new regulations on the business models of broadband carriers? Annoyed, mainly:

It’s funny, I hadn’t realized I was a Google tool. I had thought we were pushing to reverse a failed policy because we wanted to enable the next Google (that was my point about YouTube). I thought we were angry because the “merely rich” had yet to provide broadband as broadly as in other comparable nations. And I thought we were fighting the efforts of the “merely rich” to further reduce competition, either by buying up spectrum that would enable real wireless competition, or by getting state laws passed to make muni-competition illegal. I had thought these were important issues for the new economy — keeping the platform as competitive as possible, to keep prices and quality moving in the direction they move in the rest of the developed world.

Once again, Lessig presses his case on virtue grounds. He, and the others on his side who want our regulators to go where no regulator has gone before, are insistent that you see them as the Good People, who appeal to your sense of virtue and fair play, simply because they oppose the Telcos, the Bad People. And you’re to know that the Telcos are the Bad People because, well, that’s the way it’s always been. And you’re to believe that net neutrality regulations are good because, well, that’s the way the Internet has always been. This is not exactly a highly sophisticated argument.

In fact, it’s wrong in just about every way an argument can be wrong: logically, factually, intellectually, and emotionally. The Internet has not historically had regulations on how to treat router queues, and even if it had we would be under no obligation to honor them in all future telecom regulations. The Internet is a part of our society that was devised by engineers to meet a set of objectives, not a perfect essence that descended directly from the Almighty into Bob Kahn’s head in 1981. In the beginning, we wanted it to be a plaything for academics, and now we want it to be much, much more. So we’re thinking about how to regulate it and how to stimulate it to make it grow into the kind of network we all want it to be. The argument from historical essence is garbage.

Kennard is right when he says we should be debating what it’s going to take to get real broadband penetration into American homes, schools, libraries, and businesses. The better the network, the more useful it is, whether we have content taxes or not. Look at this video conferencing system from Cisco with HDTV and “telepresence:”

One industry analyst described Cisco’s system — which the company calls “telepresence” — as far superior to other video conferencing products, typically accessed or run over the Internet.

Chambers has touted the new technology as so lifelike that it could replace corporate travel, saying that Cisco will cut $100 million in expenses by reducing travel 20 percent in the next 12 months.

The system uses software the company created and runs on a network powered by the company’s own routers and switches. The pictures are displayed on a 60-inch plasma screen with 1,080-pixel screen resolution, which is four times better than the standard television and two times better than a high-definition television.

They’re saying this product has the potential to re-shape Cisco, but it would be illegal to operate under the regulations proposed by Lessig’s warriors (the system almost certainly prioritizes packets and may require extra-spiffy service from ISP or NSP to perform properly, and that’s forbidden under Snowe-Dorgan and Markey.)

One might say, somewhat simplistically, that this net neutrality thing boils down to whether you want to protect downloads from a content tax or have a system of fees and regulations that permits us to cut corporate travel and wire both rich and poor homes with superior broadband.

That’s not a difficult choice. Of course, the issue is more complicated, but not much more, so there you are, choose.

And you can also see Matt Sherman for a reasoned critique of Professor Lessig’s latest.

UPDATE: Super-excitable intellectual property attorney Harold Feld is very upset with the Boy Scouts, but he blames the MPAA, all better to imagine dark conspiracies. Feld is one of my heroes.

Progress and Freedom Foundation honcho Patrick Ross liked this humble piece, but Google scholar Richard Brandt didn’t. You can’t please everybody, and I don’t even try. Check Brandt’s photo, it’s a scream.

3 thoughts on “Building a better Internet”

  1. You’re right, the argument should be over utility, not virtue. But I don’t think net neutrality is good just because it’s virtuous. It also encourages other entrepreneurs to use the Internet to start businesses. That’s good for the U.S. economy.

    Ending network neutrality will not necessarily increase fiber to the home. The telcos have dragged their feet every step of the way in the bid to increase bandwidth to homes. I believe other companies, perhaps even including Google in an alliance with a newer telco, will make it happen because it makes it easier for them to offer services like VoIP on the Internet.

    There’s a reason the U.S. is so far behind in providing good Internet access. The telcos are lazy, too long protected by monopoly. Now they want to expand that monopoly. Is that the best way to get good service from them?

    Other countries with Internet access superior to ours have done it with government help. They did not do it by giving their telcos exclusive rights to determine who sends data through phone lines. We need government help in order to make this happen, as well as network neutrality and universal access. So tax Internet revenues, tax Google to pay for it. But don’t let the telcos decide who pays how much for access.

  2. Do you have arguments to go with your assertions, or do we have to take them on faith? For example:

    1. The net neutrality regulations proposed to Congress this year are totally without precedent in US law or in the architecture of the Internet: the QoS-for-fee ban, in particular. What’s your counter-evidence?

    2. The Internet has stimulated innovation of a certain narrow type, that’s for sure. Is that the best we can do?

    3. Is there any reason to believe that the US’ position in broadband penetration isn’t due (at least in part) to the zeal of our regulators?

    4. Korea bans VoIP on its broadband network unless it’s provided by the network’s operator/owner. Doesn’t this make your argument that foreigners are doing better than we are sort of wither up and die?

  3. It is odd that the legislation pushed by net neutrality supporters takes the view that QoS for a fee should be banned, rather than simply taking the traditional common carrier approach of saying that there should be no unreasonable discrimination in QoS charges. It may suggest that the supposed proponents of net neutrality were more interested in a poison pill to kill video franchise reform than in actually accomplishing anything useful on net neutrality.

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