06 May 2010

Questions about net neutrality

(I originally wrote the following in October 2009, but did not publish it because it seemed likely that I just didn't know what I was talking about, and everything was OK. That's still likely, but recent events suggest I could be wrong about that.)

This video starts out great. It's about what makes fertile ground for innovation. After about 2 minutes, it goes off into “I have a right to Internet access” territory, and it never really comes back.

The open Web means a lot to me personally. Everything this video starts out saying is true. The openness of the technology and the current benign behavior of the network owners means people can try stuff on an awesome scale. Life-changing stuff. Funny stuff. Stupid stuff. It's not hard; it's not expensive; anyone who has the hardware, software, network access, experience, and free time can do it. And once you have the first four, it's like magic. All you need is more free time. It's romantic and wonderful, and it's all true. (I know because once I had a lot of free time.)

Mozilla came out in favor of net neutrality last year after a long silence. I still have a lot of unanswered questions.

  • Do we really have to invite the FCC to regulate the Internet? The video invokes the threat of censorship. But um, the FCC is the country's foremost censor. This is the agency that mandated the broadcast flag, that fined Clear Channel for carrying Howard Stern, that maintained a three-network TV oligopoly for decades. This is where the Parents Television Council sends letters when someone says something vulgar on network TV. The FCC is the antithesis of the Internet.

    Of course the Internet is protected by the First Amendment in ways broadcast media aren't, and the FCC knows that. The plan is that the FCC will work in the opposite direction, preventing carriers from filtering while resisting political pressures to indulge in unconstitutional censorship of its own. I'm skeptical. Astute observers may have noticed that the First Amendment is not really a guarantee of good behavior.

    (Before you blow me off, read the next point. I really believe the bigger a role we ask the FCC to play in Internet the more it will find itself facing very difficult questions about what content should be allowed.)

  • (Since I originally wrote this, a court ruled that as it stands, the FCC does not have the authority to enforce its new net neutrality rules. The FCC responded by saying it will “move to partially reclassify broadband as a common-carrier service” and at the same time “try to establish that it will not regulate many areas of broadband”.)

  • There are questions of where to draw the line.

    Google has already gotten itself into the awkward spot of having to argue that, while the FCC should impose net neutrality rules on broadband carriers, the rules should not apply to applications Google builds on top of those networks:

    The FCC's open Internet principles apply only to the behavior of broadband carriers -- not the creators of Web-based software applications.

    I think what we want is a neutral infrastructure and vibrant content. Well, is a web browser infrastructure or content? How about a search engine? You need both to use the Internet effectively these days. Google offers products in both those markets. Should they be subject to neutrality rules? AT&T says yes, the FCC should police the entire Internet, but that's just AT&T being evil for effect. Is there a good answer to the question?

  • Net neutrality advocates want ISPs to charge by the bit, not by content. Don't actual humans hate being charged by the bit? Do you like being charged by the minute for cell phone service? I always found it kind of annoying.

    I guess humans hate being charged by content too, but honestly I am happy with having to choose basic cable vs. various channel packages and I'm glad I don't have a meter on my TV.

  • So I saw this picture on Twitter, and the story it tells is, “Your ISP wants to double your monthly bill for access to the whole Internet. Net neutrality is about saving you money.” Do they really? And is that really what it's about?

    Incidentally, why do I need a picture of a world without net neutrality rules? Am I not already living in that world?

  • As I understand it, the U.S. doesn't really have net neutrality regulations yet, and ISPs are not in fact doing any of the things I'm supposed to be worried about. What am I missing?

    I guess Comcast was blocking Bittorrent for a while. I don't know much about that case, but I suspect Comcast just (cluelessly) took Bittorrent as a proxy for “this customer is going to soak up a ton of bandwidth and then get us sued”. Is that wrong?

    Most ISPs don't let you run a Web server or a mail server out of your home, either, and strictly speaking that's a violation of net neutrality, right? Now to the extent that they're just segmenting the market, I don't really care either way. But to the extent that those types of content actually cost more per bit to carry (security risk, legal liability, tech support, etc.), net neutrality would be bad, right?

  • I suspect the real issue is that Google, Facebook, and Twitter don't want to pay my ISP for the privilege of sending me ads. I'm sure my ISP would love to be able to charge them for that, and that prospect probably terrifies Google in particular. Am I being too cynical? Would this be a bad thing? Is it right for Google to lobby the federal government to protect their profits?

I realize this probably reads like so much FUD, but it's meant as a collection of honest questions and I really do appreciate any answers you can provide. I still haven't made up my mind about net neutrality. The questions that intuitively seem important to me don't seem to have been part of the discourse.