Honourable members consider net neutrality

The first major debate on net neutrality before members of the British Parliament was held today, and more or less elicited yawns all around:

The first significant Net Neutrality debate to take place in the UK was held today at Westminster. Chaired by former trade minister Alun Michael and the Conservative shadow trade minister Charles Hendry, the event attracted the chief Telecoms regulator and ministry policy chief, a clutch of industry representatives, and a sprinkling of members of both houses.

What emerged from the sessions is that ‘Neutrality’ is one of those incomprehensible American phenomenons, from which we’ve mercifully escaped. Your reporter was one of those invited to give a briefing – having reported on the issue from both sides of the pond – and said as much. But in the expectation that this would be the heretic view, rather than the near unanimous consensus opinion.

Summing up, Michael described the clamour for pre-emptive technical legislation as “extreme… unattractive and impractical”.

It was, he said, “an answer to problems we don’t have, using a philosophy we don’t share”.

That wasn’t the only surprise.

Google was invited to appear on the panel, but declined on account of fears that it wasn’t neutral enough. That’s sad, but probably indicative of the on-line giant’s change of heart on the subject of a smarter Internet.

Toward an accountable Internet

This is some very encouraging news:

Technology Review, which jumps on the Web 3.0 bandwagon in its current issue, reports that Stanford’s Clean Slate Design for the Internet program will be holding a coming out party this Wednesday. The interdisciplinary program seems to take the end of “net neutrality” as a given. Its thrust, in fact, is to make the Internet less Internety (at least as we’ve come to define the term) by redesigning it to be “inherently secure,” by making it possible to “determine the value of a packet … to better allocate the resources of the network, providing high-value traffic with higher bandwidth, more reliability, or lower latency paths,” and by “support[ing] anonymity where prudent, and accountability where necessary.”

The current Internet is chock-full of the vestiges of its heritage as an academic research network, lacking mechanisms for security and authentication and practically inviting abuse. A new Internet, redesigned from the ground up with a realistic assessment of use and abuse, has been needed for fifteen years, so this effort is long overdue. Internet2 could have done this, but didn’t have the technical firepower needed to take public networking to the next level.

Who does? Well, lots of people:

A growing number of researchers are acknowledging that the Internet is fundamentally flawed and needs an overhaul. The Stanford program is just one of a number of initiatives to fix the Internet. (See “The Internet Is Broken.”)

Bob Metcalfe, inventor of Ethernet and founder of 3Com, believes that there needs to be a way to ensure dedicated bandwidth. “The Internet was designed to get teletype characters echoed across the U.S. in under a half second,” Metcalfe wrote in an e-mail interview. “Soon we’ll have to handle [high-definition] video conversations around the world. The Internet must now allow bandwidth reservation, not just priority, to carry realtime, high-bandwidth communication–video in its many forms including video telephone.”

Metcalfe thinks the Clean Slate project is a great idea but believes that significant challenges lie ahead. “When you’re dealing with infrastructure, in reality, off the Stanford campus … nobody gets a clean slate,” Metcalfe says. “After the brainstorming, the project will have to work on migrations, transitions, compromises, and clever hacks to get the Internet moving gradually toward their ideals.”

And that, my friends, is why I’m against Network Neutrality: I’m an inventor of network protocols (twisted pair Ethernet, wireless LANs and PANs) and my job is find bottlenecks and eliminate them. Needless regulation falls into that category.

This is the kind of work that David D. Clark does (Clark was the principal author of the “End-to-End Arguments in System Design” paper cited by pro-neuts as gospel), and he’s no more sanguine than I am about the Internet’s fragility:

At the same time, the Internet’s shortcomings have resulted in plunging security and a decreased ability to accommodate new technologies. “We are at an inflection point, a revolution point,” Clark now argues. And he delivers a strikingly pessimistic assessment of where the Internet will end up without dramatic intervention. “We might just be at the point where the utility of the Internet stalls — and perhaps turns downward.”

Indeed, for the average user, the Internet these days all too often resembles New York’s Times Square in the 1980s. It was exciting and vibrant, but you made sure to keep your head down, lest you be offered drugs, robbed, or harangued by the insane. Times Square has been cleaned up, but the Internet keeps getting worse, both at the user’s level, and — in the view of Clark and others — deep within its architecture.

Over the years, as Internet applications proliferated — wireless devices, peer-to-peer file-sharing, telephony — companies and network engineers came up with ingenious and expedient patches, plugs, and workarounds. The result is that the originally simple communications technology has become a complex and convoluted affair. For all of the Internet’s wonders, it is also difficult to manage and more fragile with each passing day.

Network neutrality isn’t just a distraction, it’s a positive danger.

Net Neutrality in summary

I’ve written dozens of posts on net neutrality since the debate started in the American media last spring, and yet another dozen on Internet regulation before the public debate started. Most of my recent writing has been reacting to press reports, political events, and other people’s blog posts, and it’s fairly hard to follow, I expect, to those who haven’t been reading all along. So I decided to to collect the relevant considerations into a single post.

Main points:

  • Everything we know about regulating networks we learned from telephony.
  • The Internet is radically different from the telephone network, hence traditional regulatory models don’t fit.
  • The Internet is in its infancy and more experimentation is needed.
  • Any regulation that’s not guided by empirical evidence of specific harm (not simply speculative, “what if?” scenarios) is likely to be wrong.
  • The technical challenges to keeping the Internet running are so great that we don’t have the luxury of adding reams of unnecessary regulations to it.
  • The appropriate regulatory stance is to watch for marketplace harm and be prepared to react to it.

These are some of my better posts on the subject:

Net Neutrality Is Intelligent Design for the Left

Quick note to Sen. Boxer

Symmetry, Control, and Progress

The Trouble With End-to-End

How Much Bandwidth is Enough?

Toward an Accountable Internet.

And the complete archive is here.

One of the great trolls of all time

This comment on an article about Linux and Windows is one the the greatest trolls I’ve ever seen:

You are kidding arent you ?

Are you saying that this linux can run on a computer without windows underneath it, at all ? As in, without a boot disk, without any drivers, and without any services ?

That sounds preposterous to me.

If it were true (and I doubt it), then companies would be selling computers without a windows. This clearly is not happening, so there must be some error in your calculations. I hope you realise that windows is more than just Office ? Its a whole system that runs the computer from start to finish, and that is a very difficult thing to acheive. A lot of people dont realise this.

Microsoft just spent $9 billion and many years to create Vista, so it does not sound reasonable that some new alternative could just snap into existence overnight like that. It would take billions of dollars and a massive effort to achieve. IBM tried, and spent a huge amount of money developing OS/2 but could never keep up with Windows. Apple tried to create their own system for years, but finally gave up recently and moved to Intel and Microsoft.

Its just not possible that a freeware like the Linux could be extended to the point where it runs the entire computer fron start to finish, without using some of the more critical parts of windows. Not possible.

I think you need to re-examine your assumptions.
Posted by: jerryleecooper Posted on: 03/14/07

The “rebuttals” go on for several pages. Jerry Lee Cooper, our hat’s off to you, dude.

Cisco gets it right, twice

I work in the network systems business, for a company that competes with Cisco. I like to point out the failings of the companies my company competes with, and I also like to highlight the instances where they get it right. Cisco has lately been in the getting it right camp, and here are a couple of examples.

The public policy lead, Bob Pepper, has written one of the better pieces on net neutrality:

The supporters of net neutrality regulation believe that more rules are necessary. In their view, without greater regulation, service providers might parcel out bandwidth or services, creating a bifurcated world in which the wealthy enjoy first-class Internet access, while everyone else is left with slow connections and degraded content.

That scenario, however, is a false paradigm. Such an all-or-nothing world doesn’t exist today, nor will it exist in the future. Without additional regulation, service providers are likely to continue doing what they are doing. They will continue to offer a variety of broadband service plans at a variety of price points to suit every type of consumer.

Depending on their requirements and preferences, some consumers will choose to pay more for premium service. Others will decide that they don’t need such high service levels, so they will pay less. Inevitably, the market will adjust, just as it has in the past, to this varied population and its preference for a highly diverse mix of services, quality, bandwidth and price. This is the hallmark of a competitive market.

This is so good, it was banned from Wikipedia.

And on the business side, this makes a heck of a lot of sense:

Cisco Systems (CSCO) on Thursday announced plans to acquire online conferencing service WebEx (WEBX) for $3.2 billion in cash.

WebEx’s subscription service allows customers to share presentations and host video conferences online. Cisco will pay $57 for each WebEx share. The deal is worth about $2.9 billion, after WebEx’s cash reserves are subtracted.

The deal has been approved by the boards of both companies but still must get the OK from regulators. It is expected to close in early summer.

Contrary to some uninformed commentary, WebEx is not a “Web 2.0 company,” it’s a high Quality of Service Internet bypass for small and medium size companies who want on-demand QoS for occasional use. I’ve worked for several companies who use the WebEx service, and find that it does exactly that it’s claimed to do, and does it well. Cisco can expand the market for its routers by increasing the size of the WebEx business, and generally move more data to IP networks, and that’s the key to success for them.

Some critics have charged Cisco’s Pepper with “not getting it”, the usual complaint that net neutrality fans make against others:

While I agree with him that more rules may not be necessary, I disagree with the framing of his argument. The Net is not just a service, users don’t just consume it, the market is hardly competitive, and many choices are overpriced or just not there.

First, the Net is a vast set of connections on which countless services can be deployed. Telephony and television are just two. Because telephone and cable companies offer Internet connections as a secondary “service” on top of their primary businesses, customers tend to think of the Net in the same terms — something extra you get from our phoen or cable company. This is wrong. In terms of what-runs-on-what, the Internet will in the long run become a base-level utility, and we will come to regard telephony and television as two among many categories of data supported by that utility, just as we now regard Fedex delivery as a service that runs on roads, but does not control them.

The error here is failing to realize that all communications services aren’t about the Internet, whatever its many virtues may be. Cell phones are not about the Internet, cable TV is not about the Internet, and private corporate networks are not about the Internet. And it’s certainly no more fallacious to talk about the first-hop Internet subscriber service as a service than it is to talk about it as “the Internet.” The Internet is a system that interconnects private IP networks, not the system that connects the Searls household to a default Internet gateway, nor is it the be-all and end-all of communication.

It would be nice, I suppose, if the day came where live telephone and television services were to migrate to the Internet, but that would hardly signal a significant advance in human civilization: television will still suck, and the Internet will remain far behind the cellular telephone network in terms of convenience and mobility.

So the score this week is Cisco 2, Utopians 0.

Funniest advocacy ever

Jay Sulzberger is a loopy open-source advocate from New York and essentially a Marxist. His contribution about net neutrality to the FTC is about the funniest attempt at advocacy I’ve ever read. Here’s a little:

Now cable TV is not the Internet, but most speakers at the FTC’s workshop spoke of the Net in ways that treated it as if it were just a form of interactive TV, with some extra special services bundled with interactive TV, “web viewing”, email, and doubtfully, voice over IP.

Questions around building another, perhaps several other, cable TV networks, are not part of the issue of Network Neutrality, because the Net is not TV of any kind.

Use of the word “broadband” to mean both the Net and cable TV helps perpetuate the fundamental confusion.

He goes on to throw a lot of dirt at a “duopoly” and tout the wonders of the Quote of the Day port. How this guy manages to feed himself on a regular basis is a complete mystery to me, but David Weinberger calls his rant “lucid.” Clearly, that’s a relative term.

Sulzberger is confused about the scope of net neutrality in particular and broadband regulation generally. When AT&T said Google wasn’t going to be allowed to use its pipes for free, the issue under discussion was IPTV, a broadband service that is perhaps easily confused with Internet subscriber service, but not actually identical. IPTV runs alongside voice and Internet subscriber services on residential broadband networks, but not through the Internet service. AT&T couldn’t care less about messing with QOTD, but they’re very serious about making money from IPTV.

Misguided and nonsensical ravings of this type aren’t really helping anybody, but they’re never going to stop. The Jay Sulzbergers and David Weinbergers of this world need to believe that an evil conspiracy is out to shut down QOTD, and no amount of rational argument will persuade them otherwise.

Fixing gay babies in the womb

Southern Baptist Seminary president Albert Mohler has accomplished a great feat of trolling on his blog, exploring the question of detecting and correcting homosexuality in pre-born fetuses:

Tyler Gray addresses these issues in the current issue of Radar magazine. In “Is Your Baby Gay?,” Gray sets out a fascinating scenario. A woman is told that her unborn baby boy is gay. This woman and her husband consider themselves to be liberal and tolerant of homosexuality. But this is not about homosexuality now; it is about their baby boy. The woman is then told that a hormone patch on her abdomen will “reverse the sexual orientation inscribed in his chromosomes.” The Sunday Times [London] predicts that such a patch should be available for use on humans within the decade. Will she use it?

This question stands at the intersection of so many competing interests. Feminists and political liberals have argued for decades now that a woman should have an unrestricted right to an abortion, for any cause or for no stated cause at all. How can they now complain if women decide to abort fetuses identified as homosexual? This question involves both abortion and gay rights — the perfect moral storm of our times.

Homosexual activists have claimed that sexual orientation cannot be changed. What if a hormone patch during pregnancy will do the job?

He’s got both gay activists and hardcore fundamentalists upset at him and sparked an article in the Associated Press.

Our hat’s off to the preacher.

Fortney’s hatred of the Baby Jesus

Fortney “Pete” Stark, Congressman from Fremont, shocked the Jesus freaks by admitting he’s not real keen on the invisible. Fortney has now inspired this riff by Sam Harris:

The problem is that wherever one stands on this continuum, one inadvertently shelters those who are more fanatical than oneself from criticism. Ordinary fundamentalist Christians, by maintaining that the Bible is the perfect word of God, inadvertently support the Dominionists — men and women who, by the millions, are quietly working to turn our country into a totalitarian theocracy reminiscent of John Calvin’s Geneva. Christian moderates, by their lingering attachment to the unique divinity of Jesus, protect the faith of fundamentalists from public scorn. Christian liberals — who aren’t sure what they believe but just love the experience of going to church occasionally — deny the moderates a proper collision with scientific rationality. And in this way centuries have come and gone without an honest word being spoken about God in our society.

If you go to church, you’re helping the terrorists. Now that’s all the more reason to devote your Sundays to baseball.

Spreading money

Viacom sues Google over YouTube for a cool billion bucks and Jeff Jarvis is predictably upset:

I’ve been reading Viacom’s boneheaded $1 billion complaint against YouTube. Viacom complains about YouTube but, in truth, they’re complaining about their own viewers. They whine about theft but, in fact, they’re whining about recommendation, about their audience finding them more audience. Viacom is trying, singlehandedly, to turn the TV industry into the music industry. They are trying to spread stupid.

Let me suggest another point of view. I believe Viacom is upset over the fact that the TV programming they produce has been appropriated by another company for the purpose of substituting the other company’s ads for Viacom’s. Viacom depends on ad sales to cover the costs of production and delivery of their programming, and when their shows end up on YouTube, Google makes all the money for the ads they sell alongside Viacom’s programming. Presumably, if Google were willing to equitably share their ad revenues with Viacom this case would never have done to court.

So who’s entitled to this ad revenue, Google or Viacom? And who’s “spreading stupid” here?

Internet over TV, maybe

There seems to be a huge disconnect on the nature of the magic box proposed to the FCC by the Usual Suspects to reclaim whitespace abandoned by analog TV:

A coalition of big technology companies wants to bring high-speed Internet access to consumers in a new way: over television airwaves. Key to the project is whether a device scheduled to be delivered to federal labs today lives up to its promise.

The coalition, which includes Microsoft and Google, wants regulators to allow idle TV channels, known as white space, to be used to beam the Internet into homes and offices. But the Federal Communications Commission first must be convinced that such traffic would not bleed outside its designated channels and interfere with existing broadcasts.

The six partners — Microsoft, Google, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Intel and Philips — say they can meet that challenge. Today, they plan to give FCC officials a prototype device, built by Microsoft, that will undergo months of testing.

Is it a low-power, in-home system comparable to WiFi and UWB, or is it a high-power, long-distance service comparable to WiMax? Nobody seems to know, yet that’s critical to evaluating its usefulness. Anybody who knows, please clue me in.