What is the Internet?

In a defensive mode following FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai’s press conference, agency spokesperson Kim Hart repeated a common misconception to the effect that the service provided by Internet Service Providers is not part of the Internet, but simply provides access to it. “Broadband providers are not the Internet,” Hart told reporters. “The draft order ensures cable companies and broadband providers don’t have the power to act as gatekeepers to the Internet.”

Rhetorically, the false dichotomy that ISPs are either “the Internet” or “gatekeepers to the Internet” is easily discarded because they are both – and neither. Internet Service Providers are in fact parts of the Internet, just as content delivery networks, transit networks, and office networks are parts of the Internet. This is a fact of technology.

The Internet Society says the Internet is a network of networks that, in their totality, interconnect computers with each other. When we browse the web from a laptop, the software on the laptop interacts with software on the web server to fetch text and pictures from various sources (not just the server that hosts the web site), display them on the laptop, and potentially inform other sites (such as advertisers) about the interaction.

When we conference with Skype, both parties use laptops that form parts of the vast international mesh of networks that connect us. When we share files with peer-to-peer software, our computers function both as clients and servers of files.  We attach our computers to the Internet when we plug in our Ethernet cables or when we connect to our Wi-Fi access points. The purpose of the connection is to join the Internet, not simply to consume it.

The Internet it not a unified bulletin board or a centralized system like AOL; it’s a flat, distributed mesh of co-equal systems and networks that cooperate to move information from points of origin to points of interest.  The Internet is therefore not a single physical object, but an information mesh in which all end points are equal. If this were not the case, the concept of neutral networks would have no meaning.

As users, it’s important to understand what the Internet is and what it isn’t, or we will never be able to perform the tasks demanded of us in terms of network security or realize the opportunities afforded by the Internet’s unique organization. It’s obviously vital for those who regulate the Internet in whole or in part to understand how it is organized, even if doing so may erode their authority.

The FCC’s proposed “Open Internet” rules address interconnection agreements between networks, and surely even a naïve press spokesperson should acknowledge that these agreements apply to mechanisms deeply embedded in the fabric of the network of networks.

If the FCC isn’t addressing the Internet’s norms, practices, and standards of conduct, why does it call its rules “Open Internet” orders?


The New York Times Takes Our Name in Vain

At least they spelled our name right. The Price of Broadband Politics is the title of a New York Times editorial on the lobbying that’s taking place around broadband Internet regulation that sounds the usual cliche themes about money in politics:

Comcast has spent more than $2 million on campaign donations; Verizon has given $1.2 million. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association — the industry’s collective lobbying group — has spent about $1 million more. And just in case that isn’t persuasive enough of the ills of government regulation, telephone and cable companies spent $20.6 million lobbying the government in the first quarter of the year.

Never mind that money spent on contributions is entirely different from money spent on lobbying, it’s the dollar signs that the Times sees, and only those on one side of the debate. So what happens if regulated industries are forbidden from lobbying? The industries who see a benefit from spinning the regulations a certain way will still lobby, and voices like that of the New York Times editorial page will be all the louder. The Times perceives its self-interest, rightly or wrongly, to depend on these regulations, and it’s spending its own money to advocate for its interests on its editorial page. God forbid its opponents who don’t own printing presses should do the same.

FCC Regulates Internet, Film Here

News leaked out earlier today to the effect that the FCC has decided to pursue a Title II regulatory program for the Internet, treating it in effect as if it were a telephone network. Others have called this approach “the nuclear option,” but I think it’s less severe, more like the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. Telecom lawyers will prosper from it, as a move of this kind is likely to take many years of court battles to squelch. Here’s a little discussion I had with a small circle of friends at the TechCrunch pad this afternoon.


FCC Broadband Deployment Research workshop

The long-awaited video of the FCC’s December 10 workshop Review and Discussion of Broadband Deployment Research is finally on-line. This workshop featured discussions of Yochai Benkler’s controversial Berkman Center report on unbundled DSL and Bob Atkinson’s report on current broadband investment dynamics in the US. As the FCC put it:

As part of the Commission’s development of the National Broadband Plan, the Commission has requested two independent studies. The Commission asked Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society to conduct an expert review of existing literature and studies about broadband deployment and usage throughout the world. The Columbia Institute for Tele-Information (“CITI”), based at the Columbia Business School in New York, conducted an independent outside expert review of projected deployment of new and upgraded broadband networks.

Benkler’s report was very politely decimated by Tom Hazlett, an actual economist who knows a thing or two about how Benkler cooked the books, intentionally or by bungling, and the relevant comparisons for the US. One of the many problems with Benkler’s report is that he didn’t do what the FCC asked him to do, which was to simply review the literature on international policies. Instead, he and his Berkman colleagues tried to aggregate all the data into a giant meta-study. Benkler violated the FCC’s “no original research” rule, which should have been familiar to Benkler given his fascination with Wikipedia.

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