Net Neutrality is Intelligent Design for the Left

Traditional values are under attack. The old ways are in decline, people insist on more freedom of choice than their grandparents had. The received wisdom about the very structure and organization of our world has been taken apart by science, and the only way to put it back together is to use the language of science to prop it up. So obscure terms and concepts enter public discourse with new meanings, and a alternative history is created. Fear runs rampant, men of science are assaulted for their moral bankruptcy, and an alternative science is injected into the schools.

While this paragraph clearly fits the “intelligent design” attack on the biological sciences in general and evolution by natural selection in particular, it also applies to “network neutrality”, the idea that only the government can be trusted to dictate policies embedded in Internet access networks. One of the most stark presentations of this viewpoint was written by Jeff Chester for the left’s holiest organ, The Nation magazine:

Absent net neutrality and other safeguards…[b]roadband connections would be governed by ever-vigilant network software engaged in “traffic policing” to insure each user couldn’t exceed the “granted resources” supervised by “admission control” technologies. Mechanisms are being put in place so our monopoly providers can “differentiate charging in real time for a wide range of applications and events.” Among the services that can form the basis of new revenues, notes Alcatel, is online content related to “community, forums, Internet access, information, news, find your way (navigation), marketing push, and health monitoring.”

Missing from the current legislative debate on communications is how the plans of cable and phone companies threaten civic participation, the free flow of information and meaningful competition. (ed: emphasis added)

Note the use of the terms in scare quotes, traffic policing, granted resources, and admission control. These are technical terms that come from the world of network engineering, and we can sure Chester doesn’t use them because he wishes to illuminate their importance in the engineering context. He doesn’t bother to define or explain, but takes it as given that any such words can only be destructive to “civic participation.”

The juxtaposition of network engineering language with social policy language is deceptive and inane. It’s like arguing that an electrical grid that provides alternating current to the home is responsible for politicians who flip-flop between positions depending on what audience they’re addressing. There’s a superficial similarity, indeed, but that’s where the connection ends.

We use admission control and policing on WiFi networks with something called WiFi multi-media (WMM) so that telephone calls and live video streams can happily coexist with web surfing on the same wireless network. Wireless networks don’t have unlimited bandwidth, so we have to use some finesse to provide a satisfactory experience to as many people as possible over a common network channel. Network engineering doesn’t do this in order to stifle democracy and curb “the free flow of information;” on the contrary, enabling as many people as possible to use the network as they wish to use it has the effect of enhancing free information flow. When we use “admission control” and its related priority system on a WiFi network, we can handle four times as many phone conversations as could without them. Doesn’t a phone call to a politician count as “civic participation” any more?

Have we now come to a state where the aesthetics of engineering language guide public policy more than the effects of engineering practice? I hope not, but we’re getting closer.

Chester admits that he wants to government to own Internet access networks, or failing that, that it should control them:

That means we would become owners of the “last mile” of fiber wire, the key link to the emerging broadband world. For about $17 a month, over ten years, the high-speed connections coming to our homes would be ours–not in perpetual hock to phone or cable monopolists.

Chester says, in essence, that the government is more likely to control the Internet in such a way that the public can engage in criticism of government actions and policies than anyone else. I see no empirical evidence that would encourage me to accept this article of faith, and plenty that argue for its rejection.

In our recent experience, we got to see head-to-head competition between a highly-regulated DSL service and a minimally-regulated Internet access system using cable TV systems, and the less-regulated option emerged as the clear technical winner.

Chester uses the language of science to urge us to ignore experimental data, and that’s as fundamentally unscientific and irrational as it gets.

For extra bonus points, his Center for Democracy and Technology minion Mike Godwin urges network neutrality regulation on the premise that the New York city taxi system is a transportation utopia. That’s just silly, and Matt Sherman explains why.