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A meaningful debate on the Google-Verizon Net Neutrality compromise

By 12 August 2010 3 Comments

Google and Verizon have come to an agreement/proposal for a compromise on Net Neutrality that they hope regulators and the rest of the industry could agree to.  Despite a near universal tech media and blogosphere meltdown in hyperbole, blatant bias, and outright vulgarity that even shocks long time Net Neutrality advocate Lauren Weinstein, it appears to me that Google and Verizon made a genuine good faith effort to come to a real compromise that they deem reasonable for all sides of the debate.  There are good and bad parts of this proposal, but the use of arbitrary definitions of what is and what isn’t “the Internet” to avoid the core debate on Net Neutrality is especially problematic.

The good

To start with the good, the Google-Verizon proposal calls for service transparency across wired and wireless Internet services but acknowledges the fact that wireless networks are fundamentally different from wired networks in technical and economic terms.  No matter how much people want them to be the same, they just aren’t the same and trying to turn a mobile wireless network into an inexpensive Video on Demand network like wired broadband service under any realistic economic model is fundamentally impossible.  Suing the Wireless companies as Ryan Singel suggests until they give customers wired broadband like service and pricing isn’t going to happen until the laws of physics are broken.

Mobile Internet services have different capability and different limitations and sold under different pricing plans and nothing is going to change that.  There are wireless services like the Kindle where Internet content and applications are only permitted if Amazon approves of it, but the consumers benefit because they get free (or close to free because it’s built into cost of e-books) mobile Internet connectivity.  There are wireless service plans that only allow a single device but come at a cheaper price and there are service plans that allow the connection of any device.  Consumers currently have the freedom to choose and by protecting the right to choose limited but cheaper connection plans, the Google-Verizon proposal protects consumer freedom.

The bad

Under the compromise, broadband providers would have to agree to a guilty-until-proven-innocent nondiscriminatory framework which would chill broadband-based innovation and investment.  This aspect of the agreement wrongly adopts one of the extreme forms of Net Neutrality.  If a broadband provider adopts a new network management scheme or deploys a new service offering, anyone could sue at anytime and it would be up to the broadband provider to prove themselves innocent before five unelected regulators or they face a $2 million fine.  This presumed guilt rule wouldn’t even be permitted under a more regulated Title II regime and the FCC doesn’t even have the authority to enforce their “third way” watered down version of Title II regulation over broadband providers.

This idea of presumed guilt for broadband providers isn’t new and it’s been a long time fantasy (or hubris thinking the same thing can’t be turned on them) of Google to get this kind of regulatory power over broadband providers.  Vint Cerf during a debate with Dave Farber proposed that broadband providers are guilty of any complaint until they prove themselves innocent.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see other broadband providers fighting this provision tooth and nail and I can’t blame them because the legal burden is unreasonable.

The ugly

The biggest problem with the Google-Verizon proposal is the fact that it avoids the most pressing debate by arbitrarily drawing a virtual line between what is the undifferentiated “Internet” and some “other” service over the same physical infrastructure.  This idea of revoking the privilege to name something “the Internet” is an old one and it has been used by members of the Open Internet coalition and other Net Neutrality advocates for years.  Whenever I’ve pointed out the many specialized services on wireless networks, the cop out argument used by people like Christopher Libertelli of Skype (a key Net Neutrality proponent) was that those services shouldn’t be banned but they can’t be called “the Internet”.

This don’t-call-it-the-Internet (DCITI) argument was used by Net Neutrality proponents because it avoids acknowledging the fact that a huge range of business models exist on the present Internet and it avoids having to defend the merits of the banning them.  Like the hypocrisy on capped or metered Internet service where Net Neutrality proponents actually promoted the idea but later expressed outrage once a broadband provider signed onto the idea, Net Neutrality proponents promoted DCITI but quickly turned against it as soon as a broadband provider signs on.

The media and blogosphere are rightfully criticizing this cop out now but it would have been nice if they had been equally outraged when it was originally promoted by the Net Neutrality movement.  Instead, media and blog coverage has largely forsaken any pretense of balance on this matter to demand an arbitrary ban on ISP enabled differentiation using the Free Press guide to public debate.

The debate on ISP differentiation is too important to defer

My biggest issue with the Google-Verizon agreement is its avoidance of the issue of ISP enabled differentiation and the sale of premium and enhanced delivery services to content and application providers.  The agreement takes the unfortunate position that the sale of router prioritization technology like DiffServ by broadband providers on the “public Internet” is illegal despite the fact that DiffServ was designed to allow for commercial differentiation.  DiffServ is defined in the Internet Standard RFC 2475 and it states:

This document defines an architecture for implementing scalable service differentiation in the Internet. A “Service” defines some significant characteristics of packet transmission in one direction across a set of one or more paths within a network. These characteristics may be specified in quantitative or statistical terms of throughput, delay, jitter, and/or loss, or may otherwise be specified in terms of some relative priority of access to network resources. Service differentiation is desired to accommodate heterogeneous application requirements and user expectations, and to permit differentiated pricing of Internet service.

The proposal does allow for the sale of router prioritization on something that isn’t called “the Internet” but resides on the same physical broadband infrastructure.  However, these prioritized non-Internet service are not to be trusted according to the Google-Verizon agreement and it must be monitored by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).  It’s not being monitored to ensure its success; it’s being monitored to ensure that it doesn’t get too successful and supplant the “public Internet”.  So the agreement actually doesn’t really reach a true agreement or compromise on the matter of ISP enabled content or application differentiation and it merely delays the battle.  The fight now becomes what qualifies as “non-Internet” and how and whether to kill off this non-Internet.

The biggest question that Google and other Net Neutrality proponents refuse to answer is the matter of user approved prioritization.  If a content or application company asked the end user if they would like some particular content from a specific website or some particular application from some specific company prioritized by the ISP and the user grants explicit permission, who is anyone or the current FCC majority to say no?

There’s very little dispute that Comcast’s TCP reset management practices were done against the wishes of its users (albeit a very small number with very minimal impact), but what if the broadband provider prioritizes a specific content or application provider with the explicit blessing of the customer?  It’s remotely possible that user authorization would be considered acceptable by the Google-Verizon agreement since it could be interpreted as not “undue discrimination”, but we have no way of knowing that because it wasn’t specifically addressed.  The agreement proposes that broadband providers are presumed guilty until proven innocent so it’s doubtful that any ISP would experiment with this user-authorized scheme if it wasn’t spelled out.

More to the point, the concept of explicit user authorization seems to be deliberately avoided by Net Neutrality proponents and the FCC majority’s NPRM proposal to regulate the Internet.  It’s an inconvenient concept that would effectively moot the ban on commercial router prioritization because users will almost universally grant permission because that’s how they actually want their own Internet to work.  The real consumers don’t actually want an undifferentiated network if it means inferior service.

I and many of my friends are the perfect examples of “the future of the Internet” as we are too cheap to pay for subscription television so we rely on free over the air HD and services like Hulu and Netflix.  But we are facing a difficult dilemma with the absolutely unreliable nature of premium Pay Per Views (PPV) coming over the Internet and it’s absolutely infuriating that a $45 PPV event is marred with multiple breaks in the action.  We can sometimes hear “oh what a kick” but we don’t see any video because we’re relying on best-effort delivery with no guarantees of quality.  We even go around the house like madmen making sure that no one else is using the Internet.  It’s gotten bad enough that we will most likely revert to traditional subscription television service so that we aren’t wasting $45 a month on low bandwidth and low reliability PPVs.  Even on other days when I’m trying to game, I have to run around and keep everyone from video streaming to keep my ping times low.

But the Net Neutrality proponents don’t actually care about the end user and they’ll ask us to accept their position as a matter of faith.  The end users shouldn’t actually care about poor service reliability and we must not smart enough to know what’s good for us in the long run.  Even gamers are being told that they must ignore all the high ping latency problems and that networks must be “neutral”.  Well this user as a former network engineer isn’t buying this bill of goods because I don’t want “neutral” networks that allow some applications to destroy my gaming and VoIP packets.  I don’t want to pay big money for unreliable PPVs and I want services that differentiate themselves with better than best effort service.  So long as Net Neutrality outlaw ISP differentiation, it will ensure that the Internet doesn’t replace existing circuit switching based solutions.