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A rational debate on Net Neutrality

The subject of Net Neutrality has become so politicized that it's almost impossible to have a rational debate on the subject. Even the term "Net Neutrality" has become a political slogan that is often deliberately vague to hide its true meaning.
Written by George Ou, Contributor on

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The subject of Net Neutrality has become so politicized that it's almost impossible to have a rational debate on the subject. Even the term "Net Neutrality" has become a political slogan that is often deliberately vague to hide its true meaning. Is it even possible to have a rational debate on Net Neutrality? That's what I'm going to try and do here and this won't be your typical Net Neutrality article that takes one side or the other because it will slap down the villains on both sides of the debate. I'm going to try and step back and share with you my thousand foot view of the whole war on Net Neutrality.

How the Internet really works: The Internet is based on users only paying for their on-ramp access and nothing more. This is the way that the Internet has always worked on a "best practice" and contractual basis. The "Internet" also isn't the single entity that people often perceive it to be; it's actually an inter-network (hence the name Internet) or a network made up of many private networks that route Internet data amongst each other on a contractual basis. Large carriers who own chunks of the Internet don't charge other large carriers in exchange for using each other's infrastructure and this is called settlement-free peering. In other words, you carry my traffic and I'll carry yours and everyone pays for their share of the Internet infrastructure.

If there's an imbalance in the amount of traffic that one carrier passes through on behalf of another carrier, the larger carrier carrying more of the data will charge the smaller carrier. On very rare occasions the smaller carrier will balk and refuse to pay and the connection between carriers is severed and customers will get cut off from each other. Ultimately one side or the other blinks and sometimes it's the bigger carrier quickly caving in because they're afraid of the legislature stepping in to regulate the unregulated Internet if the stalemate doesn't get solved in a very high-profile case where customers are cut off. But at no time do carriers ever get to directly charge customers who are attached to other carrier's networks for their Internet for traversing their network because revenue is already shared when the smaller carrier pays a portion of their revenues to the larger carriers or it's settlement-free because of mutual sharing.

The myth that the Internet has always been a dumb pipe: One of the most common arguments I hear is that the Internet has always been and continues to be a dumb pipe and there is no intelligent packet prioritization on the Internet. That simply is false and there have long been contractual agreements QoS (Quality of Service) packet prioritization for business customers. These agreements allow customers to pay a premium to permit a certain percentage of traffic (usually a small percent) to get traffic prioritization across a carrier's network.

Global Crossing for example has a premium service for its customers which it actually extends to other partnering networks using settlement-free contracts. Some of these partners are in Asia and they prioritize Global Crossing packets in exchange for Global Crossing prioritizes their packets in return. This is identical to the settlement-free connectivity I mentioned earlier only this extends the concept to cover prioritization as well. This is end-to-end QoS service which covers off-ramp QoS service without the customer directly paying the off-ramp remote network.

If we had to pay for access to other networks on the Internet, then we might as well go back to AOL or CompuServe circa 1994 when you had pockets of proprietary networks that no one else could reach and that's the last thing we want. The minute you start demanding payment from customers of other networks, the Internet becomes fragmented because it's becomes a metered closed Network. Even if you could afford to pay, it would be a logistical nightmare to keep up with all the various entities you have to pay.

Just like how we don't directly pay to route and connect to other carriers on the Internet, we wouldn't directly pay other remote carriers for prioritization services. We pay our own carrier once for connectivity (and premium prioritization service if we choose to do so) just once and let our carrier work out the dirty details with the other carriers on the Internet of whether they need to exchange money or not. This is how an intelligent but fair and open Internet works.

<Next page - Dealing with Internet Carrier abuse>

Dealing with Internet Carrier abuse

How the incompetent Telco villains started it all: When former AT&T/SBC Chairman Ed Whitacre opened his big fat mouth about how he was going to violate Internet best-practice and start charging companies like Google for access to his DSL customers, it sent shockwaves throughout the Internet. Whitacre had handed Google and the stupid network proponents all the ammunition they needed to neuter the Telcos and ban intelligence on the network. The Telcos were effectively proving themselves to be the double-dipping villains that people have always perceived them to be while making powerful enemies out of neutral parties. This turned neutral parties like Amazon.com, Microsoft, and all the other content providers against the Telcos and in favor for Net Neutrality (at least in spirit). For example, Bill Gates was actually more neutral on the subject.

In reality the content providers were in a much better position to slap fees on the Internet infrastructure providers like AT&T for the honor of carrying their content and this isn't just theoretical since ESPN has already proven that this can be done. Not only did Ed Whitacre not have the power to push Google around, he's lucky that Google didn't slap him around. Had Google wanted to demand a per-user share of DSL subscription fees from AT&T for "carrying" a premium version of Google Video or else find themselves cut off from Google.com, there's absolutely nothing to prevent them from doing that and AT&T would be dead in the water if they couldn't access the most popular search engine on the Internet.

Ed Whitacre's threats to charge foreign customers at the off-ramp from other networks were not only naive since he didn't have the power to push Google around; it fundamentally goes against the way the Internet works. If Whitacre tried to force the charges by blocking access to Google, he would have not only angered his own customers but he would have broken the law and incurred large FCC fines (which were proposed to be $500,000 per infraction by the now defunct Telecom bill). But regardless of whether AT&T has the power to charge for off-ramp access, it's none of the Telco's business what Google, Amazon, or any other content company pays their Internet Service Providers at their end of the pipe. It's just stupid, naive, and ignorant of them to think this way.

But as if they learned nothing from the Ed Whitacre fiasco, the Telco lobby kept running their mouths off in public televised debates about how companies like Amazon.com didn't pay their fair share of the bill for Internet traffic. But the reality is that they will never successfully convince people that it's OK to charge for off-ramp access, they will never change Internet best practice, and they will never have the power to do so. All they're doing buy running their mouths about how Internet Sites aren't paying their fair share on the Internet is perpetuate their villain reputation in the eyes of the public and harden support for the other extreme.

Reasonable anti-abuse controls on Internet Carriers: Let's take a hypothetical worst case scenario and assume that an Internet carrier would not actually block VoIP providers like Vonage but merely "mess" with them and flip a few packets here and there to jack up the jitter so they wouldn't violate the no-block clause. That would effectively make Vonage or any other VoIP services noticeably inferior and make the carrier's own service look good by comparison. Because they're technically not "blocking" their competitor's service, no laws have been broken.

Well we can certainly make deliberate degradation of traffic below "best effort" illegal. If we're afraid that this subtle but evil activity is too difficult to detect, we can make this a one million dollar infraction and offer the whistleblower half of that fine as a reward for cooperating with Government inspectors. If a carrier secretly reduced a certain service below "best effort" delivery for the purpose of harming a competitor, one of the network engineers or auditors will have to know about it and they can blow the whistle secretly and collect a big reward. If there is a bigger conspiracy to harm competition with these devious practices, we can send the perpetrators to jail if necessary. With such a system in place, it's highly unlikely that carriers will risk such penalties.

If we wanted to regulate the Internet - and I'm not suggesting that this level of regulation is necessarily needed at this point in time - what we might do is ban charges on remote-customers coming from other networks for off-ramp prioritization. This means AT&T can continue to offer its own business/home customers prioritization services but they can't offer out-of-network companies like Google, Vonage, or Microsoft prioritization.  This way Carriers will never be in a position to pressure external customers in to buying prioritization services.  AT&T can still indirectly offer prioritization to out-of-network companies like Google or Vonage, but the prioritization agreement must be worked out with Vonage's Internet carrier and that could be fee-based or settlement-free prioritization.  This simpler scheme would work on a much larger scale covering all premium customers on both networks without ever hassling the end user/customer.  Unfortunately, the Net Neutrality legislation in the form of Markey and Snowe-Dorgan explicitly bans any kind of charges on "Enhanced QoS" packet prioritization with no exception which criminalizes perfectly fair and legal activity.

<Next page - Does the Internet have to be stupid to be neutral?>

Does the Internet have to be stupid to be neutral?

Whenever the word "neutrality" is spoken, how could anyone be against it? When neutrality is put in the context of a fair and free Internet, how can anyone be against that? Of course we all want a neutral, fair, and free Internet but does that automatically mean that the Internet has to be stupid and devoid of any intelligence in order to achieve that goal? Does intelligence and differentiated services in the network automatically constitute criminal discrimination? That is what the Net Neutrality proponents want by pushing legislation like the Markey and Snowe-Dorgan "Net Stupidity" amendments in the House and Senate last year.

While Markey and Snowe-Dorgan didn't actually directly ban Enhanced QoS, they banned any charging of its services effectively forcing it to either be a bundled service where everyone pays for it whether they want it or not or it meant that QoS wouldn't be offered at all. The real purpose of Markey and Snowe-Dorgan was to indirectly ban QoS by preventing anyone from charging for it so they can claim they're not trying ban QoS. But the hardcore Net Neutrality lobby like the DPS Project wants a ban on all intelligent routing on the internet because intelligence on the Network in their view automatically constitutes abuse. So when these groups use the warm and fuzzy slogan "Net Neutrality", they're really talking about "Net Stupidity".

While Google publicly denounces how evil it is to bundle services, here they are forcing that very practice. During a Net Neutrality debate at the VON conference in March, Google's Richard Whitt (Washington Telecom and Media Counsel) espoused the virtues of consumer choice and how bad it was to force the bundling of services. When I asked him why did Google lobby so hard for the Markey and Snowe-Dorgan amendments last year which would have forced the bundling of Enhanced QoS since no one could buy the service a la carte, I got a good chuckle out of the crowd and Whitt didn't really have an answer for his hypocrisy. Then I grilled Whitt on the fact that it would be far more reasonable to simply ban off-ramp QoS charges and force best practice settlement-free prioritization and Whitt responded by saying that "perhaps this was the actual intent of Market and Snowe-Dorgan".

Of course Google's or Whitt's interpretation of the "intent" of the legislation is meaningless in the eyes of law because the law explicitly bans any charging for QoS. Here's the actual text of the legislation:

If the provider prioritizes or offers enhanced quality of service to data of a particular type, to prioritize or offer enhanced quality of service to all data of that type (regardless of the origin of such data) without imposing a surcharge or other consideration for such prioritization or enhanced quality of service.

While those Net Stupidity amendments were narrowly defeated in committee, there is a new congress that is far more likely to pass it if they were ever given the order from their lobbyists to do so and that is alarming to me and the pioneer of the Internet Dr. Robert Kahn. Kahn who is the father of the Internet recently called "Net Neutrality" a slogan and spoke out that he is totally opposes any legislation (1:47:35 of the video) that bans intelligence on the Internet. Kahn also stated that he disagreed with his former colleague Vint Cerf.

Vint Cerf who later joined Kahn's team on the other hand never bothers addressing the actual fundamental issue of intelligence on the Internet and simply toes Google's company line and misleads the public. During a public debate with the Grandfather of the Internet David Farber, Farber asked Cerf (28:30 on audio) how he proposes to regulate and ban a new International protocol that they deem "discriminatory". Cerf responded (29:00):

Well I would respond on that one. What we’re concerned about is the access part of the net, not the core, not the backbone. But it’s discriminatory access to the network itself. Over that part of the channel we do have reasonable jurisdiction. The access component is here on American soil.

That response from Vint Cerf either indicates that he has not read the actual Net Neutrality legislation he and Google is pushing so hard for or he is misleading the public.  There is absolutely nothing in Markey or Snowe-Dorgan that says anything about an exemption for the core or backbone of the Internet and it simply bans any surcharges on Enhanced QoS.  Cerf later goes on to publicly endorse Congressman Markey as someone who "gets it" on the subject of Net Neutrality which in reality is Net Stupidity legislation.

Ironically, a certain Vint Cerf fan Mitch Ratcliffe who attacked me for my criticism of Net Stupidity claimed that Net Neutrality only worried about ensuring no prioritization on the Backbone of the Internet which was completely shot to pieces Cerf's quotation above. But it doesn't matter if they contradict each other or not because neither Cerf nor his fan Ratcliffe seems to understand how to read a simple paragraph in the actual Net Neutrality legislation.

Others like Tim Berners-Lee (prototyped the HTTP protocol) loudly proclaim his support for Net Neutrality without ever specifically naming a bill that he favors. On multiple occasions Tim Berners-Lee has said that he thinks charging more for additional bandwidth or prioritization is perfectly legitimate. Here are two quotations:

Quotation one "We pay for connection to the Net as though it were a cloud which magically delivers our packets. We may pay for a higher or a lower quality of service. We may pay for a service which has the characteristics of being good for video, or quality audio."

Quotation two "Net Neutrality is NOT saying that one shouldn’t pay more money for high quality of service. We always have, and we always will."

So again, Berners-Lee either never read the actual Net Neutrality legislation, didn't understand it, or he's misleading the public. Since Berners-Lee has been specifically asked to answer this contradiction on multiple occasions, refuses to debate the specifics or recommend a specific piece of legislation, and he obviously isn't a stupid man that he can't understand it, Berners-Lee has the strangest position on Net Neutrality. Berners-Lee has even done promotional videos with the Net Stupidity lobby but he completely contradicts their cause with his repeated support of differentiated intelligent services on the Internet. But even in the video Berners-Lee contradicts the Net Stupidity proponents. It almost seems like Berners-Lee is torn between his own common sense that we need an intelligent network with differentiated services but he hates to alienate his Net Stupidity fans who hold him up as one of the symbols of their struggle. Is that a harsh assessment of Tim? If the hypocrisy was only once or twice then maybe it is. But Tim is the one that refuses to clarify his hypocrisy or debate the issue.

My position has always been that we need to support true Net Neutrality. I described in my opening arguments how the Internet works on settlement-free connectivity and settlement-free prioritization arrangements where users get to access anywhere on the free and open Internet. As Dr. Kahn the father of the Internet says, we don't have to ban intelligence on the Internet in order to be neutral. What I am opposed to are the Net Stupidity proponents who hide behind the slogan of Net Neutrality and hide behind the fine print of the Markey and Snowe-Dorgan legislation. Like Dr. Kahn I oppose any bans on intelligence inside the Internet.

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