A sad day for the Internet

After voting on the Comcast order today, Kevin Martin and his Democratic Party colleagues issued press releases telling us how they saved the Internet from Comcast’s discriminatory practices, but they’ve failed to release the actual order they adopted in secret. Rumor has it they re-wrote the order after voting on it, and are presently working with high-level spin doctors to remove all the rough edges, inconsistencies, and factual errors. So once again, critics of the Commission’s apparent over-reach are left sparring with a shadow puppet.

The press releases are inconsistent and incoherent.

They display a significant lack of understanding of the technical and factual issues in this case. The Commission’s press release refers to a hitherto unknown right of network applications to be treated “equally”, without sourcing it or explaining it:

The Commission concluded that Comcast’s network management practices discriminate among applications rather than treating all equally and are inconsistent with the concept of an open and accessible Internet…

While Comcast claimed that it was motivated by a desire to combat network congestion, the Commission concluded that the company’s practices are ill-tailored to serve that goal for many reasons: they affect customers who are using little bandwidth simply because they are using a disfavored application; they are not employed only during times of the day when congestion is prevalent; the company’s equipment does not target only those neighborhoods suffering from congestion; and a customer may use an extraordinary amount of bandwidth during periods of network congestion and will be totally unaffected so long as he does not utilize an application disfavored by Comcast.

And at the same time Martin endorses the practice of raising the priority of delay-sensitive applications like VoIP:

We do not tell providers how to manage their networks. They might choose, for instance, to prioritize voice-over-IP calls. In analyzing whether Comcast violated federal policy when it blocked access to certain applications, we conduct a fact-specific inquiry into whether the management practice they used was reasonable. Based on many reasons, including the arbitrary nature of the blocking, the lack of relation to times of congestion or size of files, and the manner in which they hid their conduct from their subscribers, we conclude it was not.

We do not limit providers’ efforts to stop congestion. We do say providers should disclose what they are doing to consumers.

So it’s OK to prioritize VoIP. That means it’s OK to de-prioritize everything that’s not VoIP, and the only way you can determine which is which is by inspecting packets to see what protocol carries them. But the Commission says you can’t do that:

For example, Professor David Reed of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, widely respected as one of the architects of the Internet, said that “[n]either Deep Packet Inspection nor RST Injection” — Comcast uses both to manage its network — “are acceptable behavior.”

Leaving aside the fact that Reed hasn’t been active in network engineering for over twenty years, one man’s personal opinion is not the law. Reed’s religious notions about right and wrong are inconsistent with Martin’s assertions about what’s permissible and what’s not. Deep Packet Inspection is how you see whether a given packet is carrying VoIP traffic or not. Internet packets aren’t hidden in envelopes, they’re a one-dimensional series of bytes that are all out in the open, like postcards, so there’s nothing nefarious about this. If we can’t tell what the application or protocols it is, we can’t prioritize it.

Martin says the FCC does not tell providers how they may manage their networks, but that’s the whole point of the exercise.

And the Commission remains lost about the impact of Comcast’s management on the ability of its customers to access content on the Internet. They don’t interfere with customers’ ability to download content of any kind using BitTorrent or any other protocol, but the Commission’s press release says otherwise:

The Commission concluded that the end result of Comcast’s conduct was the blocking of Internet traffic, which had the effect of substantially impeding consumers’ ability to access the content and to use the applications of their choice. The Commission noted that the record contained substantial evidence that customers, among other things, were unable to share music, watch video, or download software due to Comcast’s misconduct.

In fact, no such thing is happening on the Comcast network and it never has. Comcast does not interfere with BitTorrent downloads on its network; in fact, they prevent BitTorrent seeding from interfering with BitTorrent downloading and actually improve the performance of the application the Commission says it’s “disfavoring.”

Nobody has complained that you can’t download, and downloading is how you access the content of your choice. The actual complaint is that the amount of bandwidth Comcast allocates to BitTorrent acting as a file server is not enough. This can have an effect, typically a small one, on the ability of other people, especially those outside the Comcast network, to download the Comcast customer’s content, but there’s no “freedom to run a file server from your home.”

Throughout this whole debacle, I’ve repeatedly tested whether I could download movies and software using BitTorrent on the Comcast network, and at no time has it been blocked. There have been periods during which BitTorrent was slowed for seeding, when I wasn’t trying to download a file, just serving files to others, and that’s it.

So what we have is this:

1. A secret framework of permissible and impermissible practices;
2. A failure to interpret the facts;
3. The opinion of one former network engineer trumping years of practice on the Internet;
4. An order to stop an unknown practice;
5. A tragic lack of consistency.

Under no rational interpretation can this be considered a good day for the Internet.

I’ll have further comment when I can see the actual order.

One thought on “A sad day for the Internet

  1. Today, I tried to “tune in” to the FCC’s Webcast to watch the circus. But even though the machine was connected directly to my ISP’s backbone and was unthrottled, I couldn’t get the stream to work. RealPlayer (an application I don’t like much anyway, because it’s spyware) kept on saying, “Communicating…” but never showed me more than a still snapshot of the proceedings. And there was no audio.

    I suspect that this was due to a lack of reasonable network management by the FCC as it streamed the meeting….