Net Neutrality: Wellspring Of Terrible Analogies - InformationWeek

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12/15/2014
08:36 AM
Rob Preston
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Net Neutrality: Wellspring Of Terrible Analogies

What is it about the net neutrality debate that inspires so many uninformed opinions and misguided comparisons?

Everyone's got an opinion on net neutrality. Unfortunately, informed opinions on this matter are scarcer than scintillating conversations on The Maury Povich Show. As the late, great US Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own set of facts."

I'm of a mixed mind on net neutrality. I'm sympathetic to the argument that without some sort of regulation keeping network operators from favoring one content provider's traffic over a competitor's, the Internet could become something of a protection racket, with ISPs slowing the traffic of providers that don't pay up for "fast lane" treatment. But I also think we underestimate the power of consumer backlash to keep rogue ISPs in line. When Comcast blocked BitTorrent file sharing intermittently back in 2007, a public outcry forced Comcast to stop. I'm also sympathetic to letting network owners and operators charge bandwidth hogs such as Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu a premium.

Although the net neutrality issue is far from black and white, I do believe the crux of the matter is competition, not regulation. In markets that can commercially support more than two ISPs, we need to figure out the right mix of regulation and incentive to encourage new last-mile competitors, whether they deliver service via landlines, airwaves, satellites, or some other means. Vigorous ISP competition will cure a lot of ills. 

[A networking consultant weighs in: Read Net Neutrality: Just Say No.]

Meantime, in arguing the pros and cons of net neutrality we need to address the facts straight on, rather than drift into metaphorical tangents, non sequiturs, and bluster. Here are several recent arguments, on both sides of the issue, that miss the point and lead to more confusion:

Do it for the children
In a Nov. 11 letter to President Obama thanking him for his support of net neutrality, Jaci Clement, CEO of media watchdog Fair Media Council, calls net neutrality a "gift to America's children" -- ostensibly because it helps develop their critical thinking and deductive reasoning skills and sort fact from opinion. "Mr. President," she writes, "keeping the Internet neutral is vital, but it's also the foundation for something greater: Media savvy kids will grow up to be world-class citizens."

Image: Freepress.net

Isn't that special: Net neutrality rules are for "the children." Problem is, being "media savvy" and understanding the difference between fact and opinion have absolutely nothing to do with net neutrality. It's as if Clement read "net" and "neutrality" and formed her own conclusions without doing any research.

The evil opposition
In a blog on Engadget, author Daniel Cooper starts out by saying, "Far as we can tell, the only people against net neutrality are the ones who want to keep holding Netflix to [sic] ransom." So why, in the very next sentence, does he proceed to report on a whole bunch of other folks who oppose net neutrality? Namely, the CEOs of 60 technology companies, including Cisco, IBM, Intel, and Qualcomm, who have signed a letter opposing reclassifying broadband service under Title II of the Communications Act of 1936 because doing so, they say, could stall broadband investment. Confusing.

Odd collusion
In a piece titled "The hypocrisy of Republican opposition to net neutrality," Pando Daily editor David Holmes blasts free marketers for making half-baked arguments against net neutrality regulation. Fair enough. But then his conclusion is a head-scratcher:

"And while Obama's proposal may technically constitute government interference, the alternative -- wherein incumbents can keep newcomers out through exorbitant broadband prices -- is hardly a recipe for entrepreneurship and innovation." The "incumbents" would have to be the ISPs, so which types of "newcomers" are they keeping out through exorbitant broadband prices? Small Netflix and YouTube competitors? If so, why exactly would it be in the interests of the ISPs to collude with Netflix and YouTube to keep those newcomers out?

The Ma Bell card
In a recent Wall Street Journal op ed piece, writer and investor Andy Kessler, a onetime AT&T employee, worries that an Internet governed by Title II regulations will bring it back to the Ma Bell telecom era, during which time AT&T sat on its transistor, touch-tone dialing, cellphone, and other innovations to protect existing revenue streams.

But AT&T was able to withhold those innovations not because it was Title II-regulated, but because it was a government-mandated monopoly. It's not even clear which of Title II's more than 100 pages of common carrier regulations would come into force under net neutrality -- or even if Title II would in fact be the governing authority. (It's the reason AT&T said recently that it would hold off on some of its broadband investments: The future regulatory picture is still unclear.) And just because a set of regulations is decades old doesn't necessarily mean that all of them are outdated. Show us specifically which ones are outdated, and why, and then let's get down to the business of creating proper ones, where they're needed, and clearing away the dross.

Rocky road to nowhere
Writer Jeffrey Dorfman, in a piece on Forbes.com titled "Net Neutrality Is A Bad Idea Supported By Poor Analogies," offers up a poor analogy or two of his own.

He writes: "Net neutrality seems like a simple concept: the company that links your computer/tablet/smartphone to the Internet should not be able to discriminate among users and providers in the level of connectivity service provided. That is, we should all be able to send and receive the same number of bits of data per second. This is a bad idea for the same reason that only having vanilla ice cream for sale is a bad idea: some people want, and are willing to pay for, something different." Dorfman goes on to say: "The fact that some businesses or consumers may choose to pay for better access to the Internet is not a bad thing."

But ISPs already charge business and consumer customers different prices for different levels of connectivity. Those customers already have their multiple flavors. That's not in question here. Net neutrality isn't about what ISPs can charge consumers and businesses for Internet access; it's about what ISPs can charge content providers for prioritized delivery of their traffic to those consumers and businesses.

What is it about the net neutrality issue that brings out the caps-locked-commenting extremists complaining about the greedy billionaires and their master plot to destroy the Internet, or the end of capitalism and freedom? Let's move away from the bluster (please) and instead have a thoughtful debate based on the facts.

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Rob Preston currently serves as VP and editor in chief of InformationWeek, where he oversees the editorial content and direction of its various website, digital magazine, Webcast, live and virtual event, and other products. Rob has 25 years of experience in high-tech ... View Full Bio
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weekreader
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weekreader,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/27/2015 | 12:26:15 PM
Re: Self Serving Analogies?
"I'm also sympathetic to letting network owners and operators charge bandwidth hogs such as Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu a premium."

 

Netflix and youtube aren't "bandwidth hogs".  It's the people consuming those services that are utilizing the bandwidth.  And consumers do pay for tier access.  What the heck is wrong with Rob Preston's understanding of net neutrality.
Radly
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Radly,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/24/2014 | 2:30:37 PM
Re: Lack of competition
If it wasn't for gmail and Netflix, my ISP wouldn't have a business. They should be paying the content providers for allowing them to carry their content. Thats what TV stations and cable TV do.
Eldorado
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Eldorado,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/16/2014 | 11:21:11 AM
Re: Lack of competition
While there may be some validation to your statement "Although the net neutrality issue is far from black and white, I do believe the crux of the matter is competition, not regulation. In markets that can commercially support more than two ISPs, we need to figure out the right mix of regulation and incentive to encourage new last-mile competitors, whether they deliver service via landlines, airwaves, satellites, or some other means. Vigorous ISP competition will cure a lot of ills." Here is what I mean, I do not do much shopping online, I prefer to walk into the store find what I am looking for and purchase it. However, there may come a time when I may want to purchase online from other companies, but because I purchase from companies that cannot afford to pay the premium and/or because I am unable to pay the higher, my ISP keeps me on a slower network. How many other potential customers will be turned off by the slower networks? Would this not be like favoring one office over another on your network? We try to balance our networks all the time giving every user  equal share as much as possible. Yet, this is a concept that would favor one company over another just on revenues or even one customer over another over revenues. With an economy that exists today, would that not reduce the number of users and therefore potential customers for both the ISPs and businesses? This would be like favoring the production network over payroll and every other office on our intranets, would it not? Sorry, but Your theory of  competition would be contrary to having competition on the internet.
anon8496601046
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anon8496601046,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/15/2014 | 5:25:42 PM
Re: Lack of competition
Your statement that when it comes to high speed (25 Mbps down/5 Mbps up) Internet access "competition (among ISP's) is far from given" too softly understates the issue.  FCC Chairman Wheeler said that 55% of US homes have only one provider and 19% do not have any provider.  That leaves only about 25% of homes with anything approaching real competition.  To quote the Chairman, "meaningful competition for high-speed wired broadband is lacking and Americans need more competitive choices for faster and better Internet connections, both to take advantage of today's new services, and to incentivize the development of tomorrow's innovations." (https://apps.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-329160A1.pdf)

But until the invisible hand of competition can take effect, I think the "side issue" of NN must be addressed at least until 75% of the homes have real competition from which to choose.  Otherwise the Providers will just carve up the pie through gentleman's agreements and we will stay a one-provider public.  And we'll pay what that one provider charges, or else.
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
12/15/2014 | 5:14:26 PM
terrible analogies indeed
"The fact that some businesses or consumers may choose to pay for better access to the Internet is not a bad thing."

But this isn't the issue. You can have speed correspond to payment amount under net neutrality. But net neutrality rules would prohibit, say, paying for 100Mbps and then being told that for you'll need to pay again to get that. Or just not being provided with that speed, because you run a service that competes with an ISP-affiliated business.
RHnet359
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RHnet359,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/15/2014 | 3:12:08 PM
ComcaSt and BitTorent
While the outcry probably had an affect we have to remember that Comcast didn't go quitly. After all following the 2008 FCC ruling Comcast sued all the way up to the Supreme Court and won in 2010. It was around this time that Title II was being discussed and a more enforceable NN policy was in the works which like today worried Comcast. Comcast around that time also had their sights set on acquiring NBC and didn't want to press the issue so even after winning in court said they would abide by the FCC ruling. We also have to remember that Comcast was a major SOPA supporter in 2012 so it's not like they were huge NN fans at that point either. Also remember that on the NN free mobile network ATT it took customers almost 5 years to stop AT&T from blocking video chat. So while shaming companies in the public square may work telecom and cable companies have shown that short of attempting to get a merger approved they're more then willing to let opponents protest until they're blue in the face. Regulation is suppose to be a last resort but I say we've long since past that point.
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
12/15/2014 | 1:39:51 PM
Re: Lack of competition
I realize that competition is far from a given. That's why regulators and legislators need to focus on ways to foster it. Everything else is a side issue. As i indicated in the piece, vibrant competition cures a lot of ills -- it keeps bad supplier behavior in check. 
zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
12/15/2014 | 12:33:48 PM
Re: Wellspring Of Terrible Analogies
My only complaint is that I can't give positive feedback on gvandunk's comment more than once. This is absolutely a two-sided issue with real implications for all kinds of businesses, repercussions on both sides, and room for compromise without going all one way or all the other. All that being said, anyone who doesn't come out and admit that current major ISPs are getting away with some shady practices, that the current market is rigged against competition, and that consumers are getting the short end of the stick is being plain disingenuous. End of story. If you look at a real piece of net neutrality legislation in the real world, and you don't think it will alleviate those problems, that it will make them worse, or that it will cause other indirect problems, that's fine. If someone denies that those problems exist, I must conclude they either don't undersand the issue or they're lying because of their political leanings.

On the other hand, I do think there's a lot of legitimacy to the complaints made by ISPs - what if Netflix used 1,000 times more bandwidth than everyone else? Would that still be okay? What I would say to hardline net neutrality supporters is, if you think the internet should be a public resource that nobody controls, that's fine, but currently, it isn't. It's a private service offered to you by companies. We basically set up the current system before realizing what the consequences even were. It's ridiculous to suggest that it doesn't warrant a second look. Still, other countries have much stricter government regulations on ISPs (albeit in other ways), with much better (faster, higher uptime), cheaper, service. I think there is real stock in the moral argument that the internet should remain neutral - I just happen to think that's also the best outcome for the country and for the economy.
Somedude8
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Somedude8,
User Rank: Ninja
12/15/2014 | 11:59:30 AM
Lack of competition
One point toward the beginning of the article touches on the need for competition. Unfortunately, there is often not any real competition. In many rural areas, folks are of course lucky to have even 1 broadband provider. That is no surprise to anyone. But I live in Orange County, 'The OC', right in the thick of Surf City USA. Densely populated suburbia where high income is the norm. Where I live, we have only 1 broadband provider. Its either TW cable, or maybe a DSL line from Verizon. (No FIOS in this building.)

I say that just to illustrate the point that competition is far from being a given. The only given is that given the chance to be greedy and evil, a monopoly eventually will do so. And that a large chunk of US population is served broadband by a de facto monopoly still. That changes the picture, at least in my mind.
LANCELOTT69
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LANCELOTT69,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/15/2014 | 11:43:58 AM
Net Neutrality: Wellspring Of Terrible Analogies
You're missing an important point here. All of you out there that think that the government just wants to make the internet fair and that the regulations will stop there, raise your hand? Think a minute before you raise your hand.

There is an old Arabian proverb that goes: "If the camel once gets his nose in the tent, his body will soon follow." Once the government gets its nose in the tent with one regulation, many more will follow. This will include taxation, control of content and control of speech to name three. We have already heard from different entities in the government including the FCC, who have all but stated their desire to regulate the internet beyond Net Neutrality. Once they imposed an array of regualtions, they will then start divvying out favoritisms to special interests. Look at the tax code.

Careful what you wish for.
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