Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Sociology Memo: Network Neutrality

Another memo, the question here was something along the lines of should the FCC enforce network neutrality.


Network neutrality is a simple thing: don't discriminate between data traffic. As Lessig stated in his piece, this was the norm in the beginning as it was fairly difficult to both manage and analyze packets of data. Now with more powerful computers, it's not hard at all to analyze the data. This is why SSL exists, and people are made aware not to put in sensitive information on sites without the "https://" prefix, because unencrypted information is too easy to sniff.

This brings me to why I'm not afraid of network neutrality being violated, because in the end encryption will win out. The entire internet will be encrypted top to bottom, and encrypted traffic cannot easily be distinguished from other encrypted traffic (or even plain noise). The "darknet" already exists with this in mind, and it is quite scalable as content is delivered in peer-to-peer based ways. Fortunately people haven't had to go to the level of encryption necessary to keep government or corporation spying under control, but the fact such technology is already in place leaves me less worried if net neutrality loses.

The only reasonable argument anti-net neutrality people have given is that government regulation, all things being equal, isn't desirable. They manipulate this argument, however: the purpose of net neutrality laws isn't to regulate the internet, it's to regulate the internet providers and prevent them from regulating the internet. The standard fear is that the government regulation will go too far, but that's a separate issue, and people who support network neutrality aren't likely to support government monitoring of networks as well. All the laws wish to do is protect internet users and help the economy overall. (Clearly the anti-net neutrality camp would be happy in a world with no net neutrality, but they'd be the only ones.)

I think it's pretty clear what the broadband companies want, as it's all about the money. Right now, they want to get away with not delivering what they promise to customers. Comcast et al. advertise certain bandwidth and speed amounts, but they don't have the physical resources to back these numbers up. They rely on the majority of bandwidth being used by the minority of their customers, because if people used more their networks would collapse. To avoid this Comcast limited specific applications like P2P-services, as they are typically used by higher-bandwidth-consuming customers (who are consuming within contract rights!), and that violates network neutrality. Even if you disagree this is a bad thing, they still lied to the FCC about it (source).

Another argument is that restrictions impede innovation. What this really means is the cable companies want to "innovate" their internet services to use the same format as cable television. (An amusing, though disturbing, depiction can be found here) Setting up a two-tiered system is just the beginning, where websites must pay the ISP to allow fast-access to their website, and users have to pay for that speed because on the lower-network, which may or may not be free, the site in question is either unattainable or operates at ridiculous 90s-era speeds. Beyond this, we have the package-deals as depicted in the link and are exactly how the cable industry operates: paying for a collection of 200 websites you may or may not visit (you may only want 5), and suffering from missing out on the vastness of the internet in general.

Lessig explains very clearly what network neutrality means. Do we (the supporters) mind paying for internet, or paying more for more speed or more bandwidth? No. What we mind is when it becomes site-specific and protocol-specific. If we choose to pay the lowest premium possible, we still expect access to the entire internet, unfettered. If we choose to pay the highest premium, which promises "unlimited" bandwidth, we expect to use as much as we feel like even if the provider cannot actually support it. Laws should exist to curb this behavior which has already begun, but we agree they should go no further as in general government interference isn't a great thing. (Though interestingly, America has one of the worst broadband infrastructures in the world, and the socialized broadband countries have it quite nice.)

Posted on 2010-04-30 by Jach

Tags: government, memo


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