This is the full, uncut copy I submitted to the Mercury News. The published piece (In neutrality debate, carriers get blamed for Net’s weaknesses) has moved to the Merc’s archives, where you have to pay to retrieve it.
The Circus is Coming
The circus is coming to Palo Alto. The FCC’s network neutrality circus that is, the dramatic battle between two conflicting views of the Internet. In this tussle, the lovely but fanciful notion of a semi-divine and nearly perfect engine of democracy and community sets itself against the reality that today’s Internet is a warty gadget that lives on the edge of collapse in the best of times.
The FCC is investigating a group of complaints from the consumer protection lobby and a local startup, Vuze, Inc., against Silicon Valley’s cable company, Comcast. The complaints allege seven different kinds of villainy and seek enormous fines. The Commission has already held one public hearing, sponsored by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School, and holds the follow-up at Berkman Center alumnus Larry Lessig’s Stanford Center for Internet and Society.
Little good came from the Berkman hearing. Both panels were dominated by legal scholars, academics, and business interests dead set on securing free rides. Vuze was given its own time and the special privilege of a multi-media presentation, while ordinary witnesses encountered resistance from the Commission in simply showing Power Point slides, let alone short video clips (such as the Web Hog commercial from 2000, that I wanted to show.)
Chairman Martin made no secret of his sympathies. He badgered Comcast’s solitary witness after fairly swooning over Vuze and failed to display the slightest insight into the management challenges faced by broadband carriers. The Internet was designed for the polite society of network engineering professors and their graduate students, not our rough-and-tumble world of viruses, e-mail scams, and copyright theft, and it shows. Peer-to-peer applications, such as the open source version of BitTorrent used by Vuze, are designed to consume a disproportionate share of network bandwidth, and carriers have to limit this appetite to provide good service to mainstream users. Japan has learned that adding more capacity to the network doesn’t alleviate this problem: peer-to-peer consumes the largest share of the pipe, no matter how big it is.