Harold Feld’s Response to “Designed for Change”

Public Knowledge’s legal director, Harold Feld, has posted an interesting response to my paper, Designed for Change: End to End Arguments, Internet Innovation, and the Net Neutrality Debate on his personal blog, Harold Feld’s Tales of the Sausage Factory. This isn’t PK’s official response, in other words.

Harold grasps my argument tolerably well, which is kind of gratifying as the paper is more technical than the typical policy tome:

Bennett’s essential argument, if I grasp it correctly, is that certain difficulties most agree are substantial problems would be far easier to solve if we gave the network operators greater freedom to manipulate traffic. While possibly true in the abstract, I am much less convinced it will play out that way in reality. For one thing, when Comcast was forced to disclose its network management practices, it turned out that Comcast was not actually experiencing significant network congestion. Instead, it was proactively solving the fear of future network congestion by going after the top 1000 users every month and targeting what it considered the most significant applications that could cause congestion in the future. That had the virtue of cheap efficiency for Comcast, but it had significant costs to others.

Here’s my response:

Thanks for the write-up Harold, you seem to grasp the points I tried to make in the paper extremely well. I’m trying to add some technical depth to the net neutrality discussion, not necessarily answer all the questions. And I do say in the paper that the NN debate encompasses a number of issues about equities and ownership that are far outside the skill set of engineers. I’m urging caution with respect to being too eager to offer regulatory prescriptions that aggravate the emerging technical issues. While the Internet is 35 years old, we’re facing some issues today that have never been faced before, so in some respects it might as well be only a few months old. There are increasingly diverse uses of the Internet today in terms of applications, and an increasingly diverse user population than ever before. So some regulatory frameworks that seemed sensible in the past may not have great utility in the future, and could have the effect of limiting utility of the Internet as an engine of free speech and political organizing.

We already have a situation on our hands where effective video distribution requires the use of a CDN like Akamai or YouTube, and even YouTube doesn’t deliver consistently good streaming quality. There are underlying technical issues that cause this to be case, and we can’t resolve them merely by clamping down on the ISPs. Developing sensible two-way communication between national telecom regulators such as the FCC and its counterparts and the IETF may help move the ball down the road. Adding services to the network core in a principled and sound way should actually increase the value of the Internet for users as well as operators.

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3 thoughts on “Harold Feld’s Response to “Designed for Change””

  1. While Harold gets the gist of what Richard is saying, he does not have a practical knowledge of network engineering (he is, after all, a Washington lawyer and lobbyist). He therefore may not understand — or not want to understand, since he is now involved in defending the FCC’s decision to censure Comcast — that P2P was causing congestion on Comcast’s networks, and that it was necessary to throttle P2P back at all times of the day to keep it in check and ensure good service. (I personally know Comcast customers who had the misfortune to live down the block from a kid using BitTorrent before Comcast began to throttle, and — yes — the neighborhood did experience serious slowdowns as a result.)

    As David Farber stated at the ITIF event, we need to let engineers innovate and solve problems and keep the lawyers and regulators out of it.

  2. I like Harold’s analysis a lot more than some other neutralists. While he doesn’t appreciate the nuances of Internet engineering, he’s been consistent in his approach for a very long time. The general fallacy of career telecom regulators is the assumption that the PSTN framework fits the Internet. You don’t have to be very technical to see the problem with that assumption; like, weren’t we trying to do something different from a telephone network when we designed these packet nets? So don’t stuff the new nets in the same old categories.

  3. Feld is citing the speculative testimony again from Robb Topolski. Topolski claimed that he was seeing TCP resets in the middle of the night, and that was proof that the network wasn’t congested and Comcast was issuing the resets. But we know that TCP resets are common as background noise that occurs all over the Internet even for ISPs that do not employ TCP resets.

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