[Update: 12:00 AM June 9, 2006] The amount of political rhetoric coming from the Net neutrality crowd is at a fever pitch. From MoveOn.org to SaveTheInternet.com practicing their brand of scare the public to a self-interest driven "do-no-evil" Google, the consistent message we're getting is this: [More scare mongering here]
- Internet Telco providers will control what you see on the net
- There will be a two tiered Internet
- Google or other websites might respond at a snails pace or work at all
- Voice over IP telephony providers will be shut out
Would Google support "Search neutrality" regulation to ban search companies from providing premium search result placement at extra cost? What's needed is an intelligent and balanced debate on this topic, but the issue as represented by many in the media has been largely one sided. Instead of seeing this as a battle of large corporations between companies like Google and AT&T, we are suppose to believe that it is just the "evil" Telco companies and the "evil" politicians they paid off opposing Net neutrality against the people. If we are suppose to start with this premise, then we may as well not even have a debate since we've demonized any and all opposition to begin with. [Update: David Berlind posted a response to this].
Net neutrality is largely technological issue with very little to do with politics. Do we honestly believe the politicians are capable of regulating the routers on the Internet when they have no clue how the Internet actually works? This is the first time I've officially weighed in on this issue and I'm going to address this debate from a technology standpoint which has largely been missing. I'm going to start by address the fear mongering point by point.
Internet Telco providers will control what you see on the net:
Oh really? What part of the Internet do they control now and what services and websites are being filtered? Sergey Brin of Google thinks that AT&T and Verizon's proposal to offer faster network performance to companies that pay more is tantamount to censorship. But Internet Service providers are already providing traffic prioritization today in various forms and the Internet as we know it hasn't come to an end. Anyone who's ever bought an Internet connection knows that ISPs will provide SLA (Service Level Agreements) for traffic prioritization at extra cost.
In the case of broadband access, some of us pay $15 a month for 1 mbps Internet service. Others pay $25 a month for 3 mbps Internet service from the same ISP. For businesses willing to fork out $90 a month, they even get to have "business class" DSL service where they get a much better ratio of backhaul throughput to the aggregate throughput of the customers sharing the same backhaul. Oh and what about priority shipping of packages? What is the difference between paying for priority shipping on a physical package versus an IP package? Is this what they're referring to as "a two tiered Internet"? Gosh imagine that! Pay more money and get better throughput, of all the nerve! [Update: Net neutrality extremists want to ban charges for premium services]
There will be a two tiered Internet:
Google provides better search placement for additional cost at the expense of companies who can't afford to pay, should this be illegal too? Would Google support "Search neutrality" regulation to ban search companies from providing premium search result placement at extra cost? Oh and what about Akamai Internet caching services? Akamai provides premium throughput and caching to optimize content downloads for those who can afford it and if you can't, too bad. Should this be outlawed too?
What about companies like FileShack.com? They cap download performance for nonpaying customers at a pathetic 100 kbps while customers who pay extra get to download any content at much higher speeds. Should we also ban them from offering two classes of service for the haves and have-nots? Why not spread the wealth and spread the bandwidth so that everyone gets a bigger piece of the pie? Hey let's take this to its logical conclusion and ban all forms of premium services. Why should we have first class seating on airplanes where tons of space is "wasted" so that some poor soul like me has to be crammed in to the back of the plane? I suppose if this were the Soviet Union, we would stop all the "inequities" so that we can all stand in line together for long periods of time while no one ever seeks to improve the status quo since there are zero incentives.
Google or other websites might respond at a snails pace or work at all:
Do we honestly believe that any ISP will make destinations like Google inaccessible? I would dare say that the first ISP that tries this will be the first to go out of business, before the FCC even has a chance to have a hearing to fine them. Anyone who uses this type of scare tactic hasn't a clue on how network traffic prioritization works and the politicians are even less likely to understand. Traffic prioritization typically never hurts applications like web surfing. It makes absolutely no difference if a webpage comes in bursts of packets and some minor few second delays so long as it comes in at all within a few seconds. One tenth of that delay however would absolutely kill time sensitive applications like online video games and Voice over IP communications.
The fact of the matter is, games and VoIP don't require a lot of throughput, what they need is a lot of priority. VoIP and games typically require a slow but consistent 40 kbps stream with low latency. The technological challenge of providing quality VoIP and smooth gaming services is relatively trivial since they don't require a lot of bandwidth and they don't overly displace other forms of traffic. The exception to this rule is video conferencing which requires high throughput and low latency. Any priority given to VoIP and Games will not adversely affect HTTP (web) traffic in any significant way and you will still be able to load any webpage in a reasonable amount of time.
Demanding true Net neutrality would be sheer madness if no prioritization was ever allowed. What would at least be debatable is application neutrality where classes of applications would be treated equal within the same class but still permit traffic prioritization for applications that need it. But in a free market society, application neutrality should never mandate no prioritization at all to paying parties since no one would ever be allowed to differentiate their service. So long as no one completely blocks a service or go out of their way to deliberately de-prioritize a competitor's traffic to make it unusable, why would anyone have a problem. That shouldn't mean that an ISP has to go out of their way to prioritize someone's traffic at no cost.
So what is all the hoopla about with Google? Google and companies like Yahoo, Microsoft, and YouTube all want a piece of the multimedia pie in the form of Video content delivery since everyone seems to love watching video over the Internet these days. Should AT&T or Verizon be allowed to offer fast track services for Google or anyone else willing to pay extra money? If not, what is the difference between AT&T offering higher throughput to Google versus Akamai offering caching service to Google? From a business perspective, there's absolutely no difference because money buys you better performance in either case. From a technical perspective, the Telco solution is sheer stupidity in the sense that it's the most expensive way to deliver the same broadcast content over and over again using precious unicast bandwidth every single time. Akamai or any caching solution doesn't rely on faster Internet connections, they simply have strategically located content caching engines that allow you to bypass the traffic jam altogether such that traffic prioritization becomes moot. The Telco's solution of allocating more dedicated bandwidth at significant cost with minimum scalability would simply collapse from its own stupidity because no one would use it. In light of this, do we actually need a politician to save us?
Furthermore, there's an even better solution than Akamai since it's free. BitTorrent fundamentally works on the caching principle of never transmit the same file over a traffic jam more than you need to but it's different from Akamai in the sense that the caching engines are recruited from the users themselves. Anyone who wishes to download a popular file essentially agrees to share some of their upstream bandwidth in exchange for fast downloads. This means the more people there are, the more cache sources there are. Even a small server (or even an individual) with very limited bandwidth has the power to deliver content to millions of people and bypass all the toll booths from the Telcos and Akamai! It is not the politicians delivering this capability to you; better technology is. As powerful as Google or Microsoft is, they could easily build or buy their own integrated Torrent client and chop video up in to 30 second segments so that people will only need to wait half a minute to start watching higher quality content. Matt Sherman who runs a blog out of San Francisco points out that the video quality on services like Google video or YouTube is often worse than TV quality in the 70s. With more intelligent technology like BitTorrent, bandwidth would no longer be scarce and much of the fight over bandwidth would be moot.
Voice over IP telephony providers will be shut out:
Ah but didn't those evil Internet Service Providers recently try to squash competing VoIP providers like Vonage by blocking their VoIP traffic? They sure did but guess what happened to them? The FCC under Chairman Michael Powell (appointed by the same party that is now being demonized for opposing certain provisions of Net neutrality regulations) slapped down Madison River communications along with a $15,000 fine in March of 2005! Net neutrality didn't exist and it certainly played no role in the FCC slap down of Madison's monopolistic practices.
Had the ISP simply given prioritization to their own VoIP traffic (considering it's their pipe) or given prioritization to companies that pay for priority service but not explicitly block or go out of their way to de-prioritized Vonage VoIP traffic, then why should there be a problem? This is exactly how the Internet has worked all these years. Those who pay extra get bandwidth priority, those who don't get best effort on packet delivery and the key word here is "best effort". So long as the ISP doesn't deliberately sabotage a VoIP competitor or deliberately slow them down to the point of being unusable, then no one should have a problem with this. What we don't need is a massive set of new regulations that ban the ISP from offering premium services at extra cost.
While the Republicans blocked certain provisions of Net neutrality, that doesn't mean they're going to let the ISPs run wild. The Republican alternative was to "require the Federal Communications Commission to vet all complaints of violations of Net neutrality principles within 90 days. It gave the FCC the power to levy fines of up to $500,000 per violation." Now this sounds a lot like the Madison River case where the FCC did their job before any talk of Net neutrality, only this time all complaints have to be vetted by law and the fine is half a million dollars per infraction! Do we honestly believe any ISP would ever dare block another port again? If the FCC did their job before, why would anyone believe they're less inclined to do their job now with the new proposed law?
In summary, I hope I've added some balance to this important debate, and everyone needs to step back and look at the issue with an open mind. Net neutrality is a very complicated issue and deserves more than the mindless scare tactics. [Update: I've posted a sensible Net neutrality solution].