The Great Firewall of Net Neutrality

Tim Swanson
Lew Rockwell.com
Thursday, Sept 4, 2008

Before you do anything else, find a pen and write down these numbers: 83, 55, 21.

The discussion of net neutrality intersects a broad array of issues. I have discussed a number of them in the past and this piece will focus on a couple areas, namely prioritization and discriminatory practices.

However, in order to discuss net neutrality, we need to look at what the internet is. It is not a browser like Firefox or Internet Explorer. It is not an IM client like AIM or MSN. And it is not your Kindle or iPhone.

The internet is tens of thousands of public and privately owned networks. A network is simply two or more computers connected to each other. In many parts of the world, families and independent businesses own and operate small local computer networks. In the simplest terms, this would be a private network. In contrast, if the source of funding comes from taxpayers – through the NSF or even the PTA – those would be considered a publicly owned network.

Each of these networks are isolated silos of knowledge unless they are connected to other networks.

If you are reading this article, you somehow gained access to other networks that pointed you to the LRC server. The traditional way of gaining access to other people’s networks is through an organization called an internet service provider (ISP). There are hundreds of these across the US alone, ranging anywhere in size from small mom-and-pop operations that serve a few rural farms, to larger urban operations that serve millions of clients.

The one thing that these ISPs have in common is that they use standardized hardware including servers, routers and switches to transport digital packets from one end of the network, to the other.

Many of these ISPs sign contracts with one another so that their clients can access the servers, data, services, and clients on other networks. These are called peering agreements and are part of a standardized business practice that continues to evolve with advances in technology. In a nutshell, they are contracts that state the terms of what each party is willing to allow to happen on the network, who can be on it and what kind of data is allowed.

It should also be noted that not every network, public or private, is connected to other networks. Sometimes this is a result of privacy and security concerns, other times it is due to contractual disputes.

For instance, in one high-profile case three years ago, Cogent and L3 communications had a peering dispute that prevented over a million customers from accessing other networks. After a couple of days mediating the dispute, they resolved the situation and their clients were able to traverse back and forth as they had before.

Discrimination

Every major ISP uses hardware that can detect and monitor what kind of digital traffic is moving through their network. There are a number of techniques that they can employ to prioritize and discriminate bits of data. And in many ways this quality-of-service (QoS) action is very beneficial for both the customer and network owners.

For instance, going back to the numbers mentioned at the beginning: in 2006, roughly 83% of all email sent each day was unwanted spam. This amounts to anywhere between 60 and 150 billion pieces of mail each day.

While there are numerous entities that author and send spam, a large portion of this spam comes from zombie computers that are referred to as "botnets." A zombie computer isn’t something that drools (yet); rather it refers to the fact that the operating system has been comprised by malicious code in the form of a virus, Trojan or some kind of worm. Organized hackers are able to cluster compromised computers into large networks and commercially benefit from property trespass.

Many of these botnet operators will sell access (pdf) to "their" machines to the likes of mischievous spammers. As a result, botnets produce tens of millions of unwanted spam each day and continually evolve in an effort to stay ahead of anti-virus and anti-hacking endeavors.

For instance, in the past two years the Storm botnet has collected up to 1 million compromised systems which are used to propagate both spam and malware across the internet. And more recently, a Brazillian was indicted over operating a botnet comprised of 100,000 computers.

ISPs, both small and large, are at the forefront of this never-ending battle. And by using prioritization and discrimination practices, they are able to hinder, impair and even terminate botnet attacks on their networks. After all, both for-profit and non-profit have the incentive to keep their networks operating efficiently for their shareholders and stakeholders.

And speaking of spam, in 2003, the US federal government passed the CAN-SPAM Act which was heralded as a heavy-measured stick to ward off and punish serial spammers. And while there have been several high-profile cases of scammers, phishers, hackers and traditional spammers being prosecuted, the volume of unwanted spam has increased more than 100% in the subsequent years. It is a resounding failure by all objective measurements, as a year into its existence, only 1% of spam complied with the federal act. It hasn’t gained much traction since then.

The smart internet becomes dumb

Tim Wu is a law professor at Columbia is perhaps the best known advocate of net neutrality activism.

According to him, net neutrality is legislative protection that would prevent internet providers from discriminating and prioritizing digital traffic. In other words, all traffic would be treated the same, first-in, first-out.

In 2006, there was a large push from grass-roots activists such as SaveTheInternet to enact a number of resolutions that met Mr. Wu’s guidelines.

Fortunately, none of the legislation passed, yet the movement has gained momentum and includes people from all walks of life, including indie rock stars, bloggers like BoingBoing, viral phenoms like Ask-A-Ninja and tech luminaries such as Vint Cerf.

In addition, large media and content firms such as Google, Microsoft and brick-and-mortar companies such as CBS have joined forces to lobby Congress to pass net neutrality legislation. Furthermore, it has become a partisan issue as presidential candidate Barack Obama, a Democrat, supports it, and John McCain, a Republican opposes it.

On August 1, 2008, a divided FCC voted to admonish and punish Comcast, an ISP. In the ruling – the first of its kind – the federal regulators found the company guilty of violating net neutrality principles for throttling and blocking traffic based on the BitTorrent protocol.

Instead of taking the company to court for what appears to be fraud, false advertising or violating a service agreement, lawmakers have created a legal environment of uncertainty. Kevin Martin, FCC Commissioner, voted in favor of penalizing Comcast. However, both Martin and Tim Wu have repeatedly stated that ISPs should be allowed to prioritize Voice-over-IP (VoIP) communication – creating a nebulous exception to their rule.

Which brings us back to the numbers again: in 2006, 21% of all international phone minutes were conducted with VoIP. This technology, while not new, has been very disruptive as it has taken away swaths of market share from the traditional circuit switched enterprises. By 2010, it is predicted that more than half of all international calling minutes will use VoIP.

If net neutrality laws are enacted, VoIP usage would become an impractical means of communication hence the reason it is exempted by most net neutrality laws. The main reason has to do with the nature of the service. The most efficient phone call is one in which there is no discernable lag time between the talking of each party. Because VoIP shares the same networks that all other internet traffic is routed through, achieving low-latency becomes a never-ending battle. It has to compete with spam, malware, denial-of-service attacks, as well as streaming videos, file transfers and video games.

Subsidizing buffets

Over the past decade, most ISPs have prioritized internet traffic based on a number of factors. And while each list is somewhat different, ISPs generally try to give VoIP callers higher throughput priority.

However, many of these ISPs have also dug themselves into a hole with unlimited usage agreements. While there is no such thing as a libertarian business model, it would seem unwise to offer unlimited anything and expect that no one will take advantage of it.

For instance, according to Time Warner (an ISP), a mere 5% of its customers use more than half of its available bandwidth, and 25% of its customers use 85% of it. And the vast majority of this traffic is generated through peer-to-peer (P2P) transfers like music and movies.

The most popular P2P application used by these customers is one called BitTorrent. Which brings us to the last number. According to its creator Brahm Cohen, BitTorrent comprises 55% of all internet traffic (incidentally Cohen has spoken out against net neutrality legislation).

In order to insure that VoIP conversations remain discernable, ISPs will throttle or limit the speed at which BitTorrent traffic can flow through their networks. As a result, advocates of net neutrality have cried foul due to the discriminatory nature of this model and the recent Comcast case provided them with ammo to continue their witch hunt.

Thus, on the one hand they want access to other networks, but on the other, they don’t want to abide by service agreements that implement throttling. The easiest solution to this quagmire is to simply switch ISPs – which I discuss here.

Unseen casualties of war

If net neutrality laws are enacted, not only would time-sensitive applications like VoIP be negatively effected, but so would telemedicine, telepresence and twitch gaming.

Telemedicine is a nascent field that involves having a group of doctors virtually operating on a patient perhaps as far away as the other side of the planet. Cases have ranged from merely consulting other physicians to actually remotely operating a surgical robot. If ISPs were not allowed to discriminate, then this function will be severely impaired due to the low-latency requirements it needs.

Telepresence is another budding field in which business meetings can be held thousands of miles apart with the aid of digital monitors and web cams. Instead of commuting or flying across the planet, business associates could simply rent a telepresence room and speak face-to-face with their colleagues. However, like VoIP and telemedicine, low-latency and high-throughput is necessary for achieving real-time conversations.

And twitch gaming includes both online gaming found on consoles as well as PC games. The lower the latency, the more effective players will be at achieving strategic victory (i.e., beating their opponents). If net neutrality legislation was passed, ISPs could not effectively prioritize this traffic.

Right now there are several companies that provide solutions actually operate by discriminatory practices for customers: GameRail offers the lowest possible latencies for online computer gamers, Cisco maintains telepresence rooms across the globe, and Akamai operates one of the largest video-caching services (a similar service was used by Limelight to serve videos for the summer Olympics). Each of these services prioritizes traffic along networks they lease or own. And according to net neutrality advocates such as RampRate, this is bad.

It doesn’t cost a thing to build a new network or upgrade an old one

The one thing that net neutrality advocates continually overlook is that bandwidth is scarce. It is scarce in America as it is scarce in both Asia and Europe. Furthermore, building and maintaining a network is a very capital-intensive endeavor with low return-on-investment. For example, earlier this year, Google and six other companies pooled together resources to fund a $300 million fiber optic link between the West coast and Japan. Constructing this line will take several years and won’t be complete until 2011.

Similarly, to build a new backbone on land, entrepreneurs must: pay for permits, conduct environmental studies, rent or buy property, recruit labor, apply for technology licenses, purchase construction materials, install fiber optics, manage network equipment, and even play the game of politics. All told breaking new ground in an urban environment like Dallas can cost up to $1 million per mile.

Yet, if net neutrality legislation is enacted, the federal government will essentially be telling ISPs that they no longer own their own networks (i.e., network operators can no longer do whatever they want with their own property). Thus, this has become a battle over property rights. And as a result, many entrepreneurs and capitalists will no longer invest in the capital resources necessary to maintain or upgrade the facilities.

On this point, while Vint Cerf (a "father of the internet") is a vocal advocate for net neutrality (and socialism), his peer Bob Kahn (another "father of the internet") has noted that net neutrality legislation will remove the incentives for any company to build-out a next generation infrastructure.

In fact, if advocates of net neutrality were to truly put their money where their mouth was, they would have taken their purses and built new backbones to accommodate their egalitarian service plans. At least the owners of Copowi have done so.

Furthermore, why have these advocates not formed protest around other industries that use prioritization? For instance:

  • Commercial airline operators like JetBlue charge variable rates based on numerous factors including if you booked weeks in advance – yet you arrive at the same destination as those who pay more.
  • Most sport teams will charge variable rates based on what section of the stadium you sit in, if you purchase as a group, and what day of the week – yet everyone watches the same game.
  • Amusement parks such as Six Flags sell both general admission and express passes which allow ticket holders to skip lines entirely – yet everyone goes on the same ride.
  • Mail delivery carriers like DHL, UPS, FedEx and even the US Postal Service charge variable rates and prioritize mail based on size and speed at which the package will be delivered – yet all of the packages on a plane arrive at the same location.

And perhaps the most blatant disregard for hypothetical neutrality laws is Google itself. Dave Girourad, a manager at Google, has stated that "PageRank relies on more than 100 variables." Thus, why is it unfair for an ISP to use various factors to transmit and organize data? It is their infrastructure.

Solving the non-existent problem

The internet is not a public utility, nor should it be treated as such. In fact, up until the late 1980s the network was largely nationalized and innovated at a snails pace. It was not until the primary backbones and datacenters were privatized that the modern internet was born due to commercial incentives for private entrepreneurs. And by renationalizing the pipes, the federal government will be undoing all of the liberalization that has made the internet glorious.

The real problem, and one that appears to be politically unthinkable, is a complete decriminalization of the telecommunications industry. We have tried regulation and socialism for over 130 years (with the original government patent to Bell). Yet today, the industry is still heavily regulated and is by no means a deregulated encapsulation of laissez faire capitalism.

Net neutrality is a solution to a problem that does not exist and only serves to centralize federal control yet again. In addition, if an ISP breaks a contract, there is already a legal framework in place to deal with service agreements. So how would data discrimination warrant the need for new oversight?

Furthermore, by granting more power to the FCC, this would only be handing more snooping power to a government that has continually shown to abuse existing mandates and treat everyone as a potential terrorist.

Thus in an ironic twist, while individuals like Lawrence Lessig and organizations the EFF have detailed NSA wiretapping surveillance abuses, they are now unwittingly promoting a stealthy federal power grab that would be just as omnipotent. After all, the FCC, Justice Department and FTC will need to monitor every ISP to make sure no discrimination or prioritization takes place.

Maybe the government will be nicer this time around, right?

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