Al Franken fights for net hyperbole

Al Franken fights for net hyperbole

Summary: To think that net neutrality is a free speech issue, you need to take misunderstanding of the Internet to a new level of fantasy.


There's nothing like a good exaggeration to make a political point. Senator Al Franken made a great one recently on the Marketplace radio show, casting net neutrality as a free speech issue.

Franken's arguments betray a deep belief in net neutrality mythology and a corresponding misunderstanding of how the Internet works. Referring to the net neutrality utopian view of a neutral Internet, Franken claims "...a lot of people don't realize that that's just the way the Internet has always been." No, it hasn't.

Broadband service is not a simple network connection. If it ever was, it hasn't been for many years, and this is a good thing. The asymmetric nature of content flows on the Internet means that the network has to be managed by providers, and management necessarily involves prioritization.

Ever since FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced a reformulation of net neutrality rules, net neutrality advocates like Franken have decried the possibility of "fast lanes" for the rich and corresponding slow lanes for the masses. The thing is, there have been fast lanes for something like 20 years, and broadband couldn't function without them.

This is done with CDNs (Content Distribution Networks), most famously Akamai. Read the product description for Akamai's Aqua Ion service:

    Aqua Ion continuously pulls and caches fresh content onto servers that are closest to the end user. Our dynamic mapping system directs user requests for application content to the optimal Akamai edge server, depending on their location and transaction type, even for requests coming from mobile networks. Then, through Akamai route optimization – known as Sure Route – we identify a fast, reliable path back to your data center to retrieve dynamic/interactive content. We use several connection techniques to optimize communications between the Akamai edge server and your origin infrastructure to deliver dynamic content using optimized connections that avoid Internet problem spots.

Those edge servers are likely in the local network office for your ISP, like Comcast, Cox, Verizon, etc. That sure sounds like a fast lane to me. And good thing, because if every content provider were going through the same internet working connections. the performance for services with high data demands would suffer and they would be more vulnerable to attacks, especially DDOS attacks. In fact, around ten years ago, Microsoft experienced a spate of DDOS attacks, causing them to move large amounts of their web infrastructure to Akamai.

Net neutrality advocates have mostly pretended that CDNs don't exist, but some are instead constructing bad arguments that CDNs aren't a problem for net neutrality. S. Derek Turner on freepress says that CDNs are a straw man, claiming that because they have their own network they don't disadvantage other content. This just doesn't wash. If your content is getting to the last mile more efficiently then it has an advantage over the content that isn't. Obviously it's a fast lane, and content providers wouldn't pay for it if it weren't.

Franken goes a step further, by calling net neutrality a free speech issue. He puts it this way: "You want someone's individual blog to travel as fast as the New York Times." Really? And if they don't travel at the same speed, the slower one is being censored? If Franken were raising the possibility that someone's blog would actually be blocked that would be one thing (although nobody is suggesting such is a possibility).

His statement illustrates a conflation of issues that has happened in net neutrality thought: The original fear was over disparate treatment of different forms of data based on content (competitor advertising, disfavored political views) or application type (BitTorrent, streaming video). The content treatment could be a form of censorship, but if there have been examples of this they have been few and far between. The one famous example of Comcast temporarily throttling BitTorrent was because of the volume of traffic, and Comcast now will only throttle bandwidth-hogging users in a protocol-independent manner. So there's no net neutrality issue there. In fact, the new FCC proposed rules specifically say that no legal content may be blocked.

Now the main issue has turned to disparate treatment of content providers by ISPs. I suspect there are two reasons why this has happened. First, the original net neutrality proposals against content discrimination are a solution in search of a problem, and second because there was no public interest in it. On the other hand, it's easier to drum up public interest by bashing the big, bad ISPs, because everyone has to deal with them.

But the new net neutrality problems are no more real than the old ones. They're just an anti-corporate dystopian fantasy. Al Franken's censorship claims might be funny if he weren't in an important position.

Topics: Networking, Government US

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  • Well, Whether you like it or not, Franken is right.

    The "slower channels" are being censored.

    And it isn't the issue of "slower channel" - the issue is ARTIFICIALLY SLOWING THE CHANNEL.

    The customer has already paid for his speed. The provider has already paid for his speed.


    Simple answer: EXTORTION.
  • Another thing (though it may be considered nit picking)...

    Putting a picture of Sen. Franken on the headline makes it appear that your article is the opinion of Sen. Franken.
  • Fascist control

    Frankin just wants democrat-fascist control of everything. For him it's not the Internet of things it's the control of things. Because it's for your OWN GOOD.
    • Bingo!

      I wouldn't trust anything this guy says, he just wants government control over the internet so they can pick and choose what goes through it. I live in crappy MN so I know, land of NE foodstamper slaves and light rail nodody wants or uses and 10,000 potholes.

      He is clearly in the pocket of comcast, where is the talk about breaking up the comcast monolopy Al??????
    • well, no matter the motives... this case he's right. if you don't agree with his political view, just think of it as a broken clock showing correct time twice a day. :-)
    • re:

      Like most people who parrot what they hear on Fox News, you don't even recognise real Fascism when you vote for it.
      Sir Name
    • Really?

      Do you even know what facist means? I don't follow Franken too close, but I've never heard anything bad from him. Everything said in this article makes sense to me. The Internet HAS BEEN controlled for a long time already. And I don't have much issue with that because it is what it is... my problem is the extortion... mafia size companies paying and bullying their power for bandwidth over smaller companies. THAT is not right!
  • To think that... neutrality is NOT a free speech issue, you need to way to highly of your geek credentials, Larry.
    "net neutrality" doesn't mean no QoS - it's means service priority is not influenced by anything other than nature of the service: think voice having higher priority, not Verizon's voice, all voice service providers.

    I'm telling you - kinda-sorta techie-ish journos like you do more damage than the most ignorant technophobe...
  • It seems more like you don't understand

    what you are talking about is NOT the same as we and he is/are complaining about. CDN's are not the same as giving a content providers stream priority over another stream.

    Netflix getting a fast lane is wrong. It gives them priority of others who don't pay the extortion fee.

    Get it?
    • yep...

      ...doesn't understand - pretty much says it all.
    • Net Neutrality And the Information Super Highway

      Here's the problem from an ISP point of view. Bandwidth, we're talking Bps, costs money, lots of money. The higher the Bps, the more it costs. Look at the price differentials between Fast-ethernet and Gigabit-ethernet. The faster equipment costs more. If the fibre isn't fast enough, a new fibre has to be laid and that costs a lot of money. Speed costs and the faster you want it, the more it costs. And since ISPs are businesses, they're not in the business of LOSING money. So they need to relay those costs somehow to the consumer.

      Take my home network for example. If I'm watching a movie on NetFlix in HD, my spouse can't watch YouTube because the NetFlix has eaten away too much of our Bps to support both streams. So someone gets hurt when all traffic is treated equally.

      Now look at it from the ISP persepctive. Why should you effectively have NO internet because I want to watch Despicple Me 2 in 3D HD? That's not fair to you. But if the ISP is to make all traffic equal, this is effectively the result.

      So in order to make everything effectively equal between you and I, to ensure we both get a decent level of service, content like NetFlix use to be throttled so that you can get the latest from ZDnet. But that's not treating the packets the same! It's prioritizing your tiny amounts of traffic over my massive amounts of traffic, all in the name of providing you a decent service.

      The analogy I often use is that reading an atricle from ZDnet means that packets the size of Vespas go from you down the information super highway to ZDnet and they send you back a Smart car. Vespa-sized packets go from me to NetFlix and they send me back a 16-trailer road-train. The packets are all travelling the same speed, but my 16-trailer road train means there is less room for your Smart cars. How many lanes is your nearest interstate? Now imagine you're in a SmartCar trying to get on the highway and all you can see is an endless stream of these huge road-trains. There is no space for you on the road anymore. And that is very much what happens with so-called Net Neutrality as originally legislated. The hogs keep you from getting on or getting good service. And that upsets the people being blocked.

      So what an ISP use to do was throttle the number of road-trains allowed onto the highway so that there was space for the SmartCars to get on as well. But that's treating the packets differently. This practice upsets the hogs.

      Clearly, there has to be a better way. I don't think the current FCC ruling is the better way. But clearly, traffic needs to be prioritized somehow so that we can all more equitably share the road.
  • Hey Larry

    How much did Comcast pay you to write this BS for them? Did Time Warner also chip in to help cover your fee?
    Sir Name
  • Normally...

    ... I like reading your articles, but I must strongly disagree with your conclusions on this one. Having to pay more for "fast lanes" will put usable access speeds out of reach for startups and many users.
    Please don't sound like an apologist for the big companies who think they deserve larger profits for less service.
  • Author

    While I normally don't support 'attacking' an author for writing an article, I can honestly say "WOW".

    You are SOOOO off base it's not even funny.

    Please do not write about tech issues anymore. I think High Society fluff pieces are better suited for you now.
    • Second that...

      ...though even High Society fluff pieces may not be enough of the downgrade... How about weather? :-)
      • Weather

        Nah. Don't want to be insulting to Mother Earth.

        I'd rather insult those pompous HS people. :)
  • Indirect linkage

    I'm sure there are pressure groups out there that would absolutely love to persuade ISPs to censor their networks on their behalf and an abandonment of net neutrality would facilitate that, but that's probably not what ISPs are going to do as it would probably fatally undermine the ISPs' allies in Congress.
    John L. Ries
  • The entitled are ignorant of basic civics

    Only the Government should not censor that goes for all opposing views including right of center Christians, but anything else between private individuals and business, on their private property including internet connections and media, is censorship is permissible. It the right to determine of every person what traffic it passed or what media allows. I admit I censor inflammatory post on my blog. I censor on my net r Bit Torrent, because as a bible believing Christian I cannot facilitate sin on my private networks.
    As demonstrated with political correctness one cannot have a free and I open intent with a government controlled internet. Look what government has done to free speech in the public arena by Christians in the public square in the name of separation of church and state.
    • re:

      Last time I checked, you're free to talk about your imaginary sky bully all you want to in public. Just because the government isn't endorsing your mythology (or anyone else's) doesn't mean it's censoring you. In the public marketplace of ideas, your sales are in a downward spiral.
      Sir Name
    • Cable companies and telcos...

      ...offer Internet services using infrastructure they wouldn't even own were it not for government-granted franchises. Likewise with satellite services that rely on government-launched equipment. I might give the wireless companies a break, as well as ISPs that are renting access to telco equipment, but broadband Internet depends heavily on government-granted rights of way and is an oligopoly (at best) in virtually every market in the US. Pleading free enterprise really doesn't work here.
      John L. Ries