Defining away the uncertainty

David Isenberg is jumping on the cluetrain to defend Dr. David Weinberger from charges of fuzziness. According to the Davids, there’s no uncertainty about Network Neutrality:

As a proponent of Network Neutrality, I cringe when I hear, “We do not even know what Network Neutrality means.” We DO know. Such statements are true ONLY in the sense that we don’t know the precise dividing line between a shelf and a table, or that we can’t say precisely how a tree grows, or that there’s sometimes fuzziness in whether a death is a murder.

It is in the telcos’ and cablecos’ interest to keep Network Neutrality amorphous and undefinable. If we don’t even know what it is, we can’t pass a law against it, right?

We DO know what Net Neutrality is. There are several excellent definitions of Network Neutrality, e.g., by the Annenberg Center, by savetheinternet [.pdf] [disclosure: I work as an unpaid volunteer with the savetheinternet folks], and, perhaps the clearest statement of all, since it is stated as proposed legislation, by Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) [actual 2006 Bill here .pdf].

The unifying element is the prohibition of deliberate discrimination.

Isenberg should read his own writing.

Net neutrality proponents are sharply divided about what constitutes “discrimination”, and one can find this rift in Isenberg’s book “The Rise of the Stupid Network,” where he describes something called “idiot savant behaviors” which allow the network to tailor transport services to the needs of applications:

[In] the Stupid Network, because the data is the boss, it can tell the network, in real time, what kind of service it needs. And the Stupid Network would have a small repertoire of idiot-savant behaviors to treat different data types appropriately. If the data identified itself as financial data, the Stupid Network would deliver it accurately, no matter how many milliseconds of delay the error checking would take. If the data were two-way voice or video, the Stupid Network would provide low delay, even at the price of an occasional flipped bit. If the data were entertainment audio or video, the Stupid Network would provide wider bandwidth, but would not necessarily give low delay or absolute accuracy. And if there were a need for unique transmission characteristics, the data would tell the Stupid Network in more detail how to treat it, and the Stupid Network would do what it was told.

This is a sort of “discrimination” and a violation of Strict Stupidity. But not to do this, which would be to simply treat all packets the same, is also a form of discrimination because it favors applications that care more about bulk data transfer over those that need timely service.

So either way, we can wave our hands about “discrimination” or we can address application realities, and we all have to choose. It’s not that clear at all, and Isenberg knows it.

In the US we practice a form of social discrimination called “Affirmative Action” which many advocates claim is not discrimination at all because it’s for a good reason. In the UK, they’re a lot more honest, calling it “Positive Discrimination.” Network neutrality either bans or endorses positive discrimination depending on whose definition you use.

That’s reality. On the Internet, we have a number of different behaviors that require “discrimination” on the part of the carrier: fraud, theft, and bandwidth hogging among them. To require strict passivity on the part of the carrier when we know these things go on is simply to hide ones head in the sand.

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