Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Net Neutrality Once Again At Risk

Net Neutrality Series, Part 4

Remember Net Neutrality? The term was coined by Columbia University professor Tim Wu in 2003 (ref). It's a topic I've written about in RapidGroove several times before (See part 1part 2part 3).

Net Neutrality is all about fair handling of traffic on the Internet. Without it, carriers could speed up traffic from, say, the audio and video services in which they have financial interests, and slow down or block the traffic of the ones where they do not. 

Net Neutrality is once again at risk. Today's FCC leadership is sympathetic to the wishes of the big carriers. In December, the FCC will vote on the “Restoring Internet Freedom Order.” The “freedom" in this case is clearly for network carriers, not you the Internet user, and the "restoring" part is about restoring the days before the FCC upheld the concepts of Net Neutrality, which the current FCC chairman characterizes as "heavy handed." But these regulations have helped to make the Internet a level playing field for new services. As a result, the FCC's likely next move will be a real blow to innovation. That's a loss for us all.

Net Neutrality is not an easy set of concepts to understand because it requires some understanding of the infrastructure of the Internet and because at times services that seem to be benefits to consumers (such as Zero Rating) are really providing a small benefit while creating an environment in which individuals and small companies cannot easily develop and deploy new services – all to protect the financial interests of a small number of very wealthy carriers with enormous lobbying power.

Perhaps even more troubling, there is evidence emerging that during open comment periods, more than a million comments calling for Net Neutrality repeal were fakes. Even public comments are struggling for a level playing field.

If you feel strongly about a free and open Internet, consider doing the following to help: 
** Write to your congress-person at  
** Join the EFF at

Finally, keep an eye on the vote in December and on the aftermath. The Internet is a powerful force and the final chapter of the Net Neutrality story has probably not yet been written.


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  1. A couple of comments, in response.

    You assert that "the [current Net Neutrality] regulations have helped to make the Internet a level playing field for new services" and that "As a result, the FCC's likely next move will be a real blow to innovation."

    What is the basis for making that categorical statement? How did the current Net Neutrality laws effect a "level playing field" for internet services, websites or individuals?

    What inequalities existed before Chairman Wheeler enacted the Net Neutrality regs - lo those many, many THREE years ago? How were those inequalities changed in the intervening 3 years?

    What innovations are you aware of that simply could not be pursued before 2014, that are now flourishing, as a result of the short-lived Net Neutrality regulations?

    I ask these questions semi-rhetorically, because arguments about "level playing fields" and "inequality" and"stifling innovation" are "trigger words," that are intended to frighten people and impart a sense that there IS or WAS something wrong. And that these immediate harms must be corrected. But no such conditions existed re: the internet.

    No carriers were favoring content or certain services or websites. Consumers were, and have been, seeing increased speeds, connectivity and reliability - all at continuously reduced costs.

    I have never not been able to access a particular website or service through any browser, on any of the multiple internet providers I have used, regularly.

    What is more, you and I pay less now, for consistent 25mbps service, to multiple devices and WiFi than we did for spotty service to a single device over a 56k modem in 1997. That's free competition at work.

    Net Neutrality, while an attractive idea, is - at least right now - really just a solution in search of a problem. When my ISP starts throttling sites and services becuase they are affiliated with some OTHER ISP, then I will be concerned and perhaps support regulation of the intent to ensure neutrality by and among ISPs. Until that ACTUALLY HAPPENS, I really don't think folks should talk about it, like it IS happening or did happen.

    Clearly, Net Neutrality is not an easy set of concepts to understand because it requires some understanding of the infrastructure of the Internet, but even more so, Net Neutrality is not an easy set of concepts to understand because it requires a great deal of understanding of the way our legal and regulatory system works - and is supposed to work.

    Why do you refer to Zero rating as something that "at times...seem to be benefits to consumers?" How is enacting zero rating for certain data - data that always was previously charged for, legally charged for, accepted as charged for and essentially never even questioned as charged for - ever NOT a consumer benefit?

    How is providing zero rating to certain types of data in ANY way "creating an environment in which individuals and small companies cannot easily develop and deploy new services"?

    While it is concerning that there is evidence that many million comments were apparently automated, it is entirely unfair to assert that the automated comments were "calling for Net Neutrality repeal." Indeed, it appears (at least for now, they are still analyzing and investigating) that the vast majority of illegitimate comments were PRO Net Neutrality.

    If you feel strongly about a free and open Internet, it is MUCH more important to actually be informed than it is to just "Write to your congress-person..."

    If people are going to do that, simply because they have heard an intentionally alarmist, biased, sound-byte of this complex issue, then they're really just additional BOTs, and we don't need their comments, either.

  2. First, THANK YOU! I appreciate that you read and brought your thinking to this. We seem to disagree on several things here, but that's part of many good discussions.

    My claim that a level playing field has been valuable is simply based on this: researchers and startup businesses working with real-time protocols and services have been able to do so without great risk of their traffic being artificially affected. I’m betting that at least some startups and innovators existed during these last few years.

    If you are really asking “what inequalities?” and believe that “no carriers were favoring content or certain services,” I disagree. Plenty are documented. Here’s one list.

    It’s okay to believe or not believe any of those listings, of course. But I am comfortable with my claim that there is a history of issues, and I’m not able to agree that “no such conditions existed.”

    But rather than continue to debate you point by point, I think our disagreement might come down to this: what’s the right level of regulation? Is any regulation at all too much? Is there a sweet spot, and are the general ideas behind Net Neutrality, realized as regulations, too far for you but just right for me? Could be. I readily admit that I’m not a free market absolutist. Whether it's the auto industry, the health care industry, the financial industry, or the Internet, I think there’s a place for reasonable regulations. I suspect we might differ on “what’s reasonable,” and that’s okay.

    As for the price benefits of markets… Do they only exist in the absence of regulation? Also, is the price/performance ratio better today purely through “free market competition?” I’d say partly, not purely. I'd say it's more complicated than that. Major technological advancements have taken place during my 30 years as a professional telecommunications engineer and faculty member. I went to graduate school for this stuff, and it sounds like you studied law. We might overlap in the space we’re arguing about today. I think that's great. Anyway, today we are reaping the performance and price benefits of wave division multiplexing in our long haul networks, better signaling approaches in the last mile, faster and more sophisticated IP routers, and so much more.

    Finally (for now), I might be less committed to Net Neutrality if there were more opportunity for consumer choice. But unfortunately in most areas there are very few choices for consumers. If I had a choice of five ISPs with practical options serving my neighborhood, instead of just two, I might see this somewhat differently. If one ISP offered me a lower price for a “package” of their tuned version of the Internet, and another offered me the open Internet for a higher price, I’d have a choice I could make. But if I have only two ISPs and both get to decide on what I can get (whether transparently or not), I don’t feel like I really do have a choice.

    I'm glad to see reasonable discussion and I thank you again for reading and commenting. I'm always glad when we arrive at our opinions for good reasons. I'll respect that you arrived at yours honestly and with due diligence, and hope that you'll do the same for me.

  3. I’m glad you took my comment as reasonable disagreement questioning and not something more aggravated. I'm really just trying to present the other side of the debate. Not just playing "Devil's Advocate" mind you, I sincerely do believe that, while the idea of Net Neutrality is a noble one, regulation to ensure it is premature, at best. .
    Again, I would ask if your concerns about a level playing field being valuable to researchers and startups being able to do what they do without a lot of risk to their traffic is borne out of an actual experience, where their research or concepts were actually affected? Or, are we to assume that "likely will happen" without regulation?
    One of my biggest concerns with the proposed Net Neutrality regs - and perhaps even moreso with the way they are advocated - is that most (all?) of the popularly-announced justifications really aren't actual harms, that anyone seems to have experienced. They are boogey men, trotted out to support an overly-regulatory mindset.
    Character-count limits (and perhaps discretion?) don’t allow me to address the specifics of what inequalities exist(ed) and the laughable FreePress list you linked to.
    I wouldn’t describe our debate as stemming from: "What is the right level of regulation?" It importantly involves issues of what to regulate and the proper role of regulating agencies. (*Note)
    I am not a free market absolutist, either. It is clear that I would like to see something closer to a free market than likely you would, but, I understand the need for appropriate, judiciously-applied regulation, in certain areas. We may differ on “what’s reasonable,” and I also agree: That’s okay.
    I don't think either of us would argue that economic benefits of markets only exist in the absence of regulation, or that any improved price/performance ratio we see today is purely the result of free market competition. It IS more complicated than that. But you DO seem to agree that a good deal of appreciable performance increases, at reduced cost, without, at least, "paralyzing" ISP abuses of control, have occurred in what has thus far been a regulatory vacuum.
    **Note 1 - Finally (for now), I find it intriguing that you recognize the correlation between your commitment to Net Neutrality and the lack of consumer choice of ISPs, yet you don't seem to be concerned about that apparent inversion of the regulatory purpose.
    Of course, if we could all choose between 10 different ISPs, competition would be even greater and as a result, the specter of potential ISP abuse of power would be even less ominous. But... Isn't THAT really what the FCC should be ensuring?
    Because the FCC has historically abrogated it's TRUE purpose - to ensure that OUR airwaves (and by extension, our telecommunications providers) remain a benefit to the people, not a burden - we are now in the position where Americans do business with Government-sanctioned virtual monopolies. So in 2017 we have large corporate power players - on BOTH sides - gaming this process. A process which amounts to putting a mere Band-Aid on a long-festering, sucking chest wound.
    At least as compelling as my belief that the Net Neutrality regs are largely a mis-guided attempt to "pre-police" what is, at best, only a potential problem, is the fact that I'm not inclined to let the watchman who slept through the looting of the entire town, last night, promise us that he'll just get a new billy-club today, and that will make everything OK for us.
    I'm glad to engage in a reasonable discussion on these issues. I come and read your blog with some regularity and I value (and defer to) your technical understanding on these telecom/technology issues. Of course I respect that you arrived at your perspective honesty, some due diligence and a true heart. I just saw an extremely one-sided presentation of what is a complex issue, which has merits on both sides, and thought I'd chime in with some alternate viewpoints.