Cory Doctorow, Net Neutrality, and I

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Cory Doctorow, known for many things but notably an author on, spoke here at UCI today. No one had any questions for him, so I spoke up and got to have a decent dialog with him about Net Neutrality.

Cory clearly is for net neutrality which, in a nutshell, means that all packets are delivered with equal effort by the people who control the internet (ISPs and communications companies like AT&T, QWest, etc.) without regard for their origin, their destination or their content.

In principle, I agree that this would be a nice world to live in, but the point that I tried to make is that net neutrality is a red herring. There is no such thing currently in our Internet. Businesses, and other organizations, for which getting packets to and from destinations is critical to their livelihood already spend an enormous amount of effort to get their packets delivered faster. This is done through buying better engineering solutions (putting their content closer to their consumers on fat pipes), as well as through reciprocal agreements with other organizations (I will pay you to guarantee that my packets get through preferentially as a quality of service agreement).

What the ISPs are suggesting by "breaking net neutrality" or in their terms "deregulating the Internet" is to actually degrade your traffic unless you pay them money to deliver content at full speed. Now to be clear, both ends of a connection, a consumer and a web site, for example, are already paying to connect to the Internet. What the ISPs are proposing is an additional charge to get a "good" connection to the Internet which is a "not degraded" connection now.

Clearly this would suck. But my position is that this is already the de facto condition now and so talking about net neutrality is rhetoric which aligns you with activists or corporations but does little to shine light on inequity.

My position is that we should let the ISPs do whatever they want in terms of charging consumers and here's why: If an average individual can't get their Google Video to play at home, they generally regard it as a fact of life created by their physical location and they also probably blame themselves for incompetence or a lack of a decent computer. If it became widely known that companies were degrading traffic or offering "premium" services they would begin to wonder if the problem wasn't the ISPs instead of their own problem.

Very quickly, other companies would emerge which would offer better service. In order to prove that they offer better service they would have to develop a method of measuring the service - something which doesn't exist now (or exists in some simple ways). There would be a shake out as the quality of various companies' ISP service could suddenly be measured and made transparent. At this stage, all of the current back room deals and investment in infrastructure would be clear and their would be a feedback loop created for under served, but high paying customers to get a better network. The end result would be *more* equality than what currently exists.

So to summarize my position:

  1. Net Neutrality doesn't really exist now, there is discrimination on the Internet, but we can't see it.
  2. But it could be worse.
  3. ISPs want to make it worse explicitly.
  4. If they make it worse there will be an incentive for new companies to prove they are better.
  5. This will cause the creation of metrics which measure service to prove they are better.
  6. Now the previously hidden discrimination will be made clear and customers who pay the same amount will get the same service

Cory countered with two points. The first was that allowing the market to work it out like this will cause a lot of people to get hurt before it gets better. Second, he pointed out that in the short term, the ISPs will make a lot of money by overcharging their customers and that this is going to be made by exploiting a monopoly granted to them by the government in the form of rights-of-way for their wiring.

I don't believe either of these points are strong enough to warrant legislating net neutrality. We currently have no way of measuring whether or not the Internet is actually neutral - there may be a lot of people getting hurt now that we don't now about. Secondly although the ISPs will make money off of the public resource which is embodied in the rights-of-way granted to their cable, wireless technologies are making those rights of way decreasingly valuable as time goes on. So even if they were at one time a great gift to communication companies on the public's back, the public is increasingly unable to monetize that same resource any more.

My prediction is that this fight is going to disappear because it's already lost. The net is not neutral any more. There was never any law saying it had to be. Let it go. We would be better off finding a way to publicly and objectively analyze the service from different providers.

Cory was a good speaker and a nice guy. Getting to have a public debate with him is one of the great joys of being a professor.

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