Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Network Neutrality: So Simple Even the Times Gets It

It's so simple -- the world's need for Internet neutrality, that is -- even the New York Times gets it:

In its current form, Internet service operates in the same nondiscriminatory way as phone service. When someone calls your home, the telephone company puts through the call without regard to who is calling. In the same way, Internet service providers let Web sites operated by eBay, CNN or any other company send information to you on an equal footing. But perhaps not for long. It has occurred to the service providers that the Web sites their users visit could be a rich new revenue source. Why not charge eBay a fee for using the Internet connection to conduct its commerce, or ask Google to pay when customers download a video?

...If access tiering takes hold, the Internet providers, rather than consumers, could become the driving force in how the Internet evolves. Those corporations' profit-driven choices, rather than users' choices, would determine which sites and methodologies succeed and fail. They also might be able to stifle promising innovations, like Internet telephony, that compete with their own business interests.

Let me repeat my opening statement: even the New York Times gets it. And they haven't even arrived at the truly malevolent, worst-case scenarios.

BellWest Network Neutrality
Another fantastic "deal" from BellWest

Imagine that our favorite RBOC -- BellWest -- wants to get into the search-engine business. Nothing like capturing market share from Google to pump up the stock price, right? In a world without network neutrality, nothing prevents BellWest from intentionally slowing search results from Google and Yahoo while delivering their own search results at blazing speeds.

Sound far-fetched? Unfortunately, it's not. The diabolical new hardware that Cisco and other vendors are hawking to the carriers appears expressly designed for this purpose.

The carriers will tell you that they're just interested in prioritizing content from content providers who've ponied up additional fees: say, video feeds from Netflix. But what they really may be after is utter control of the content flowing through their pipes. After all, if Netflix is successful in renting out videos over the net, why wouldn't BellWest eventually create their own video service and cut out third-party video providers altogether?

This same model could extend to any online business. The carriers could conceivably enter any proven online venue by blocking or delaying content from competitors and assuring only their home-grown packets got through with acceptable performance.

And if you don't think this is what the carriers are truly after, I'd ask you to do two bits of research. First, read the synopsis of the marketing literature for Cisco's Service Exchange Framework (SEF). Then, get an answer from the carriers on these three simple questions related to their use of this hardware. What you find won't be comforting, I can assure you.

The carriers will also tell you that prioritization (QoS - or quality-of-service) is needed to deliver high-quality streaming content to the residential "last mile." But that argument, too, appears to be bunkum. Recent experiences with the new, new high-speed backbone called Internet2 provdes that a multitrack network is unnecessary to assure quality of service. In other words, "best effort" packet delivery -- the way the Internet works today -- is quite good enough, thank you.

PBS' Robert X. Cringely talked to one of the best sources of networking wisdom regarding this very topic. He came away with a memorable sound bite:

I asked Bob Kahn, the father of TCP/IP, and he made the point that the Internet is a Best Effort network and if you change that, well, you no longer have the Internet.


The funny thing is that the carriers -- the big-wig SBC/AT&T execs, for instance -- can't keep from blabbing about what they're really up to. They could have made innocuous statements about prioritization and remained circumspect about their true intentions. Instead, top execs like SBC's CEO Ed Whitacre had their moments in the sun, declaring war on content providers: "...for a Google or Yahoo! or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!"

Ahem. Let's ignore the fact that all of those providers ante up plenty each month to pay for their various giant Internet pipes. What Whitacre is talking about seems to me nothing less than "a packet protection racket". One can imagine him sitting like Don Corleone, advising his Consigliere: "Google don't wanna pay us? Thas' okay. Their packets could run into a little... trouble... along the way."

Even the highly compensated telco lobbying groups haven't shied away from glimpses into their desired end-state. NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow blurted out this gem recently:

Let me be clear: NCTA's members have not, and will not, block the ability of their high-speed Internet service customers to access any lawful content, application, or services available over the public Internet... This commitment should be consistent with tiers and terms of a customer's service plan.

Translation: you want VoIP or peer-to-peer, better pay the tax for the extra tiers of IP capability. Never mind that all of this would work fine in the current democratized Internet... our current state of network neutrality. No, the carriers want to exact new taxes for certain kinds of IP traffic, that much is clear. So much for innovations like Skype and Gnutella.

Yes, I know, it's a brain-damaged strategy -- based on a business case that has no chance of success in the real world. But it's precisely what you'd expect from unreformed monopolists who fear competing where the real action is: in the application space, at layers 4-7. Think Google, Digg, Vonage, and countless other application providers who have created real value using the commoditized world of IP plumbing.

Somehow I don't see much value being created by allowing carriers to erect tollbooths all over the Internet. I see a lot of value destruction -- and a dearth of innovation -- instead. And I'm not the only one. Stanford Law School's Barbara Van Schewick issued an amazingly detailed analysis of network neutrality regulation. Her conclusion?

The analysis shows that calls for network neutrality regulation are justified: In the absence of network neutrality regulation, there is a real threat that network providers will discriminate against independent producers of applications, content or portals or exclude them from their network. This threat reduces the amount of innovation in the markets for applications, content and portals at significant costs to society... increasing the amount of application-level innovation through network neutrality regulation is more important than the costs associated with it.

Ready to get involved? Click here to send a message to the carriers and Congress. Network neutrality is a fundamental principle of a successful, Democratic Internet. And there's no arguing that.

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