Thursday, May 25, 2006 - Should the Net Be Neutral?

This is going to be more than a one-sentence entry, just because I actually have a strong (and informed) opinion on the issue.

Mike McCurry is the spokesperson for the group I will hereafter (in this entry) call "the enemy". He has some ideas about net neutrality, and possibly some knowledge about it's opposite...hard to tell from the article.

Craig Newmark, while very knowledgeable about the subject at hand, gets derailed from making a stronger case by some heartfelt (and not misplaced) emotion.

Here's my take on what *should* have been mentioned in this tete-a-tete

The following comes straight from Mr. McCurry's mouth:

...The current Internet is creaky and will suffer congestion if we don't invest in improvements. The network operators prepared to make those investments need to get a return and one way is to charge a premium for managing huge bandwidth content differently. Face it, most users trying to get video want packets of video data to assemble differently than regular email content...

Personal outrage aside, there is the beginning of the bizarre argument the telcos keep making hidden here.

When the telecom companies start talking about the internet being "creaky" and "needing improvement", what they're saying is "we want more money to put in faster pipes". Astonishingly enough, although they collect money every month from their customers (broadband, dial-up, and dedicated internet-access customers) for the services they offer, *and* for the FUSF (or FCRF, or whatever acronym they choose to use containing "Federal" and "Fee"), which is something they "may" charge us all to offset the cost of...drum roll...putting in place network infrastructure.

They're already charging everyone twice, and not only do they want to add a third revenue source ( up or we slow down your internet) from websites, they have been adding a fourth source by charging broadband users extra money to open up all of the ports (or un-cap recently capped speeds) on their purchased internet connections. Innovation in billing is something telecom companies are historically excellent at.

The issue of whether users want video on demand or telnet or IRC isn't the point here. The enemy could just as easily do some QOS (quality-of-service) magic on those types of transfers as they could upgrade infrastructure. Actually, they already are, as a number of frustrated Vonage internet phone users have discovered. Bastardry at it's finest.

Yes, Mr. McCurry ticked me off, and it's obvious that he's talking in weasel-words (to me, anyway).

Mr. Newmark said:

So, to preserve the level playing field, we need to prevent the powerful from paying people for special privileges. We're NOT talking about regulation, we're talking about preserving democracy.

Mr. Newmark, I would wager, is a crusader for democracy and member of the EFF and other good stuff like that. His statement puts him very much on the side of the little guy, which is fine, just not as helpful as a more pointed rebuttal would have been.

I think he misses a really good opportunity here to frame the disagreement. I don't think the issue of powerful vs. weak is the pivotal issue in the Net Neutrality debate. I think the pivotal issue is freedom vs. restriction.

The enemy owns much of the infrastructure we use to communicate, and they see a way to make money. They don't care about connection speeds unless it's in relation to how much the profit margin goes up at a certain cost-per-node-per-MBPS. They want to make money and show their shareholders that they're good at doing it so they get *more* shareholders.

I get that. Fine. I like free enterprise and capitalism, and all the opportunity that it allows. What I don't get, or enjoy the idea of one bit, which Mr. McCurry mentions, is why they would want to purposely degrade connectivity:

It looks to me that companies are rushing to provide faster connections for Internet users, not looking how they can slow someone down (which would be a nutty thing to do from a business perspective.) Where is the problem that needs to be solved?

He's completely incorrect on this point. I guess maybe it's not obvious to everyone, but to a customer that just paid X dollars for an internet connection, if Google (who has stated it will not pay any telco or ISP for "higher tier" status) comes up slow, that means their connection to the internet is "slow". That's what the enemy wants, of course...they can use that perception to create fear on the part of websites that serve a lot of data to web-surfers and try and cow them into paying the extortion money. It's a huge bargaining chip that they are hoping will help to hold at bay the razor-thin margins they're afraid of.

The enemy *could* charge it's customers more, which would be pretty straightforward, but that would make it look like they were picking on the little guy, instead of the mighty Google, regardless of the fact that the little guy will end up paying for it anyway.

The apparently difficult-to-find (for Mr. McCurry) "problem that needs to be solved" is that of the telecoms continually trying to charge more money for the exact same service. They could build their own search engines that don't suck, video libraries that don't suck, etc, etc, and not have to worry about all that nasty cross-peer bandwidth usage that has caused irritation.

The whole thing is ridiculous, and I blame Cogent and Level 3 for getting all of this started.

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