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Tilting at Windmills

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January 5, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

NET NEUTRALITY UPDATE....Is net neutrality primed for a comeback? AT&T chief Edward Whitacre, a determined foe of neutrality, recently backed down in the face of opposition from Democratic members of the FCC:

As head of the muscular new AT&T Inc. -- SBC took the name when it acquired the venerable long-distance giant -- Whitacre surprisingly agreed last week that his company would not sell premium delivery of Web content for the next two years. His decision could spur Congress to extend the prohibition to all Internet providers.

....Key congressional supporters of network neutrality plan to reintroduce their legislation soon, hoping AT&T's decision elevates the policy into law. And AT&T's pledge not to discriminate among Internet content, contained largely in a two-sentence paragraph, may rob neutrality opponents of one of their most effective arguments: that the issue is too vague to be precisely defined.

"You have a single paragraph that has a rule that a fifth-grader can understand: Treat people the same," said Timothy Wu, a Columbia University law professor who has faced that argument when testifying to Congress in favor of network neutrality. "This will set a baseline and a standard."

Unlike a lot of liberal bloggers, I don't think net neutrality is quite the bombshell issue it's sometimes treated as, but I still think this is good news. The internet has prospered under a regime of net neutrality for several decades, and ordinary prudence suggests we should be pretty cautious before abandoning it. After all, we have a pretty good idea that even in the worst case a net neutral regime isn't going to do any enormous harm, and I suspect -- mirable dictu! -- that the phone companies will somehow figure out a way to offer new high-speed services just fine even if they aren't allowed to set up toll lanes.

And if they don't? Then the law can be changed. But I'd rather see it changed in response to demonstrable problems, not a mere insistence from the telecom industry that they're doomed if we don't do what they want. We've heard that Chicken Little song just a few too many times before.

Kevin Drum 11:37 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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Again, we have the looters trying to steal something that they did not create. The internet was created by scientists and researchers, like Tim Berners-Lee at CERN. It was designed as a tool for scientific interchange.

Now that it exists, the looters at the big corporations are trying to monetize it, by charging for something that has always been free. This cannot be allowed to occur.

Posted by: POed Lib on January 5, 2007 at 11:55 AM | PERMALINK

We have existence proofs that the telcos don't need what they say they need: better broadband penetration in almost every other developed country, even though (and often because) those other countries, in most cases, mandate a level playing field to a much greater extent than the US does.

Posted by: Joe Buck on January 5, 2007 at 12:04 PM | PERMALINK

As dear Al has pointed out before, if you don't allow the telecos to rule the Internet, distance surgery can't be done safely, and lots of people will die. Thus, you LIEberals are killers! Not that we didn't know that before.

Posted by: Al's Mommy on January 5, 2007 at 12:07 PM | PERMALINK

Joe, be fair - a lot of those countries also have much smaller geographic area to cover and a more modern telecommunications network (because, er, they didn't have one at all back in the day...)

That said, the technical barriers to overcome are hideous. Setting up quality of service guarantees for certain customers is one thing; trying to intentionally degrade performance for others, though, is actually a really nasty technical problem. Not to mention marketing suicide, especially when your competitor can just sit on its butt and run ads saying "WE actually freakin' deliver your web sites!"

One points out that most broadband providers are monopoly cable or monopoly telephone providers; however, in both cases they're regulated by their respective localities, so it wouldn't be too hard to put the screws on there. Don't do the data job? Oh, sorry, you aren't the provider here anymore.

National legislation is definitely not needed here. If the various companies ever figure out the technical measures needed, and the localities can't twist the arms on their own? Then maybe. But it ain't broke, so why fix it?

Posted by: Avatar on January 5, 2007 at 12:11 PM | PERMALINK

I recently saw Sen. Schumer on the Donny Deutch program, saying that pornography on the net had to be stopped. I think this will be the Democrats' cover for allowing the corporate monopolization of the public good we call the internet.

Posted by: Brojo on January 5, 2007 at 12:15 PM | PERMALINK

"....ordinary prudence suggests we should be pretty cautious before abandoning it."

This is the kind of thing that conservatives used to say. Now it is the kind of thing liberals say. They seem to have switched positions.

Posted by: Colin on January 5, 2007 at 12:16 PM | PERMALINK

If I had any faith that this would be the best way to drive product/service improvements, I'd say "let it be" (royalties to whomever owns that).

I don't. Seems like nothing more than a money grab.

Posted by: wishIwuz2 on January 5, 2007 at 12:19 PM | PERMALINK

In a technical discussion on this point yesterday, I read a good EXAMPLE of an area where we don't have Net Neutrality.

Camera Cell Phones.

Your Cell Phone has a Camera.
Your Cell Phone has Memory Storage to store pictures.
Your Cell Phone has Internet Access to transmit data.
Your Cell Phone also likely has a USB data port.

What you can not do with the pictures that you take with your cell phone, is you can not transfer them to any external storage via USB or your internet connection.

Your Cell Phone provider's software that's running your phone, forces you to either delete a picture, store it on the phone's limited memory and only display it on the phone's limited display, or, the third choice, is to send it to any email accout, via the vendor's special "picture transfer" service, which, in most cases, costs about $.25-$1.00 per picture.

This is because the Government does not regulate how Verizon or CellularOne uses their proprietary networks, and how they offer service to customers. Verizon and CellularOne built their networks, so that's probably okay, even though it's a crappy deal for consumers.

But the Internet was invented by government-funded researchers, and built by taxpayer money. It's a general purpose network, content-agnostic, connecting general purpose computers. If I contract with my provider for X amount of data per unit of time, my provider has no right to restrict where I'm getting data from, where I'm sending it to, and what is inside the packets.

Posted by: Extradite Rumsfeld on January 5, 2007 at 12:19 PM | PERMALINK

Good grief. Was the babble at the Tower of Babel this erudite?

Posted by: Evenk on January 5, 2007 at 12:22 PM | PERMALINK

Bu, could anyone explain to me why it is not wise to only allow those with three and up car garages the use of the internet - Only they can fully explain, over and over and over, to we of of the masses, Kyoto and Eurabia and a Clinton appendage.

Posted by: stupid git on January 5, 2007 at 12:22 PM | PERMALINK

I'm guessing there's eventually going to be network neutrality blowback.

Microsoft will sue because some carrier is blocking their DRM network probes and automated "phone home" messages, and then spyware manufacturers will join in and make it a class action suit. The supreme court will step in, and while three justices are stoked up on bizitin and pharamzatan they'll force the industry into a compromise involving premium delivery services and a series of toll tubes.

Posted by: B on January 5, 2007 at 12:32 PM | PERMALINK

> That said, the technical barriers to overcome
> are hideous. Setting up quality of service
> guarantees for certain customers is one thing;
> trying to intentionally degrade performance for
> others, though, is actually a really nasty
> technical problem.

I am sure The New AT&T (nee SBC) has thousands of engineers working on it - literally.

I deal primarily with the business communications division(s) of both AT&T Classic (which is still operating) and what was the SBC side. Before the merger I got reasonable service from AT&T (very good service for international circuits) and not-too-horrible service from SBC.

Since the merger, and especially since the BellSouth offer, The New AT&T's service and attitude have been horrible. Worse than the worst I experienced prior to the 1984 breakup. So bad that dusting off the old LPs of Bill Cosby's "We're the phooooooone company" routine won't be sufficient because they are far worse and more arrogant than the Old AT&T at its height.

And at least the Old AT&T had Bell Labs and similar operations actually developing things and making the world a better place. The New AT&T is about armed robbery all the time.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer on January 5, 2007 at 12:35 PM | PERMALINK

One thing to watch out for in the whole net-neutrality debate is someone trying to spin it for national security. ISPs tend to block inbound port 80, because (once-upon-a-time) Microsoft's IIS was an enabled-by-default-insecure-piece-of-crap. I don't know if that's an issue anymore, but it also makes it ever-so-slightly more difficult for people to "just run" a webserver on their home box with dynamic DNS. It's a nerdly thing to do, but it's a difference, and it's there.

ISPs could, and it would actually be a generally good thing, regulate how all their DSL and cable customers used certain protocols, because a fair percentage of the boxes on the net are zombies spewing out spam. Throttle those ports, and away goes much of the spam. Arguably, because those zombies could be purchased by a hostile nation and used against us, it is a national security issue (in practice, what we want the ISPs to do is look for spam-sending from user X, and if/when it is detected, throttle their internet traffic -- but there goes common-carrier status, it's not "neutral" either. Other problem is, user X's infected box is not actually costing the ISP that much money, so they see no reason to tick off user X, so they won't actually do this).

If the lobbyists for the telcos don't find a way to twist this argument against net neutrality, they're not earning their pay, so expect to hear it sooner or later.

Posted by: dr2chase on January 5, 2007 at 12:38 PM | PERMALINK

i just like the sentence that begins "Unlike a lot of liberal bloggers...".

it's nice to see the term 'liberal' used in a nice, non-disparaging way!

Posted by: pjf on January 5, 2007 at 12:53 PM | PERMALINK

After all, we have a pretty good idea that even in the worst case a net neutral regime isn't going to do any enormous harm...

???

Cite?

Posted by: Old Hat on January 5, 2007 at 12:54 PM | PERMALINK
I suspect -- mirable dictu! -- that the phone companies will somehow figure out a way to offer new high-speed services just fine even if they aren't allowed to set up toll lanes.

The suggestion that net neutrality prohibits "toll lanes" suggests that internet access is, with it, completely free of cost. That is not the case. Nor is it the case that net neutrality, as usually conceived, stops service providers from charging the people who buy service from them premiums for higher speed or higher volume services.

Posted by: cmdicely on January 5, 2007 at 1:02 PM | PERMALINK

Extradite Rumsfeld-

Indeed - and that was an example among many. I use cell phones vs. computers/internet when describing to friends the difference between market based vs. government innovation in network goods.

My cell phone is much more powerful than my first computer, and somewhat more powerful than my first Macintosh. As a computational device, it's significantly less useful than my calculator - except that it handles phone calls.

If it were an open system, I would buy a phone from any vendor. I would buy network time from any (or, more efficiently, one regulated provider). I would download any kind of software I liked (OS, PIM, photo, video games, etc.) from any of millions of junior or large software vendors in the world - some free, some boxed. This is what I do now with standard computers; I cannot do this with my cell phone (also a computer).

The fact that I can't install a descent answering machine on a Java-equiped phone is sick. Net neutrality is a big deal.

Posted by: Saam Barrager on January 5, 2007 at 1:02 PM | PERMALINK
ISPs could, and it would actually be a generally good thing, regulate how all their DSL and cable customers used certain protocols, because a fair percentage of the boxes on the net are zombies spewing out spam. Throttle those ports, and away goes much of the spam.

And the freedom to use outgoing mail providers other than that of your ISP, at the same time. Unless, of course, they use a nonstandard port — there being, of course, no necessary relation between ports and protocols.

Posted by: cmdicely on January 5, 2007 at 1:04 PM | PERMALINK

...My cell phone .... As a computational device, it's significantly less useful than my calculator - except that it handles phone calls....Posted by: Saam Barrager on January 5, 2007 at 1:02 PM | PERMALINK

Oh - my cell phone comes with a calculator.
Why Verizon hasn't figured out how to charge me per-use of the calculator yet, I'll never know. I frequently use my cell phone to check the time too. I suppose that one would be hard to meter.

Posted by: Extradite Rumsfeld on January 5, 2007 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

A predicttion - in 20 years or less, the Internet will be almost entirely commercialized. By that I mean that virtually every site, including Kevin's, will be subscription-only or on a pay-per-view basis. In addition to paying your ISP (or telecom company) for the privilege of accessing the Internet, you will have to pay to visit almost every site or your usage will be metered in some fashion. It's happening already - many of the major newpapers are now behind a pay-to-view wall (e.g. NY Times). The number of "free" sites will be about the same number as community access channels on cable TV - very damn few - and they will be of very poor quality.

Fascists like Bush will also find the freedom to say what you want on the Net to be antithetical to the mythical "War on Terror". As a result, usage and expressions of opinion will be closely monitored.

Remember - freedom of the press is only free to those who own a printing press.

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on January 5, 2007 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

What I'd like is a cell phone that lets me dispense cash and postage stamps like an ATM. Then I'd stand on a busy street corner and charge other people to use it.

Posted by: Roger Normans on January 5, 2007 at 2:40 PM | PERMALINK

In the mid 90s, most of the major telcos agreed to provide fiber optic services to most of their customers within X number of years (I'm unsure of the exact duration) in exchange for tax breaks.

As the mergers piled up over the last few years, this has not been enforced. Instead, the greedy bastards took the money and ran away with it. Only minimal investment in infrastructure, and usually only for business customers willing to pay big bucks for services.

Deregulation. What a fantastic farce.

Posted by: Ranger Jay on January 5, 2007 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

Speaking of SBC/AT&T, I had a training class (on Sun equipment) in Atlanta last April with some AT&T/SBC employees. They were the most unprofessional bunch of yahoos I've ever seen. They showed up at 11 on the first day, and went home when we broke for lunch. They skipped the next day altogether. On the third day, they got kicked out of the class for an hour or two because of an issue with billing (which of course they hadn't bothered to resolve the first two days). When they were in class, they were playing MP3s on the class workstation ("humor," no music). When I left on the last day of class, they were destroying their workstations (which admittedly were almost certainly going to be reimaged after we left, but still).

Posted by: mwg on January 5, 2007 at 2:53 PM | PERMALINK

Mr. Drum,

I'm sorry to hear about your Jasmine. My New Year's Eve was clouded by the site of my LuLu stagging across the floor after having nope appetite that morning. After an overnight visit to the pet emergency hospital and a huge number of test they found that Lulu had lymphoma. I was able to bring her home on New Year's night and with the aid of steriods she has gotten back some of her vigor and appetite but will probably only for another month. Time that I will treasure. I sorry you didn't have the same opportunity to bid a fond farewell to Jasmine. Lulu is almost seventeen and had a most excellent life, and will certainly be missed when that final day arrives.

Posted by: Ken on January 5, 2007 at 2:58 PM | PERMALINK

The Conservative Deflator

I hope you are wrong, but you might be right. The beauty of the internet is that it is a beacon of free expression. It has become such a beacon beacuse the cost of posting is so damn cheap compared to running a newspaper.

I recently heard that there are about 55 million bloggers of various stripes. Most of them like Globial Citizen only have a few hits each day. They will never be able to make money on a commercial basis. They are valid voices non-the-less.

From the introduction of radio right through cable television electronic media has been one way. Until the internet electronic media limited freedom of expression to a few chosen voices. Those voices were well and carefully chosen to promote the needs of the corporate elites who own the equipment. The Time Warners and News Corps of the world have been able to control the discussion. That discussion has been all one way.

The internet changes the discussion in a very profound way. Don't believe me ask George Allen. He was being touted as Presidential timber right up to the time he uttered the word "Macacca." If CNN, Fox News, and the other members of the editorial priesthood had had its way, that story would never have seen the light of day.

Lots of other recent stories have also made their way into our discussion on the blogs. Some unimportant, others absolutely vital. Do you think we would be having the discussions we are having about Iraq without the Globial Citizens of the world blogging the issue day in and day out. After all the violence in the war in Iraq is an order of magnitude lower that Vietnam. It took a decade for the priests of broadcast journalism to become aware of the horror that was Vietnam. The military and administration have done all they can to shelter us from the war. I am sure their friends in the media would love to report happy stories if they could, but damn camera phones and the internet have made it impossible to filter information coming out of Iraq.

The truth is that Tim Russert and a lot of other main stream media types are producing better stuff because bloggers call crap.

The big fight over the next few years will probably between us cowboys who like being empowered and the elite Yale and Harvard graduates who want to do all our thinking and talking for us.

Posted by: Ron Byers on January 5, 2007 at 2:58 PM | PERMALINK

Sorry about the poor grammar but I was in the middle of a work crisis when I drafted my post. I didn't have time to edit.

Posted by: Ron Byers on January 5, 2007 at 3:17 PM | PERMALINK

Unlike a lot of liberal bloggers, I don't think net neutrality is quite the bombshell issue it's sometimes treated as, but I still think this is good news.

Tell you what. If the carriers let me buy cable channels a la carte, I'll support their stance on net neutrality Deal? I didn't think so.

Posted by: Jasper on January 5, 2007 at 3:35 PM | PERMALINK

One points out that most broadband providers are monopoly cable or monopoly telephone providers; however, in both cases they're regulated by their respective localities, so it wouldn't be too hard to put the screws on there. Don't do the data job? Oh, sorry, you aren't the provider here anymore.

Uh-huh. So the Philadelphia city government launches an innovative (and eminently sensible) free Wi-Fi network, open to all. And in response Verizon, after losing in court, leases enough Pennsylvania legislators to squash a state-wide implementation of the same far-sighted plan. Yeah, the telco's really need to fear state regulators, you bet.

Posted by: sglover on January 5, 2007 at 3:54 PM | PERMALINK

Ron Byers, delurking to applaud and say I think you just hit the nail right on the head. And that last sentence just sums things up in a nutshell. Well written.

Personally, I'm mostly optimistic that we will win this and related fights, but it still needs to be fought and all the attention we can get it, to avoid the dangers of apathy and lack of knowledge.

Posted by: ixeian on January 5, 2007 at 3:57 PM | PERMALINK

The Democrats will continue to support Net Neutrality.

But Democrats may have the power to make a difference only for another couple of years.

Hear all you want about reasons the Democrats squeeked out a victory last November that gave them narrow control of the Congress for two years.

But when all is said and done, the real reason Democrats won is because a lot of racist bigots in the South and rural Midwest vote only in presidential elections and simply don't come out for the mid-terms.

And the Republican Party has the racist bigot vote locked up and plays to it all the time and depends on it for victory.

Listen up. Does anyone think for one minute that the Republican Party would be the majority Party at any time these days without the racist bigot vote in the South and rural Midwest?

So, count your blessings for the next couple of years on Net Neutrality and much else of real importance in day-to-day living by ordinary Joes -- and that includes even the racist bigots, though their disordered minds don't permit them to think so.

Enjoy while it lasts and keep in mind that the racist bigots in the South and rural Midwest will be out in force in 2008 to vote Republican no matter who the Republicans run, even a dinosaur like John McCain.

Posted by: richard on January 5, 2007 at 4:33 PM | PERMALINK

Don't count on state regulators to act in the common interest on Net Neutrality or much else.

Take for instance my representative on the state public service commission.

The last time he ran, a news reporter had the audacity to ask him why he accepted campaign contributions from the companies he was supposed to regulate.

"Who else would give me money?" he replied.

Posted by: samuel on January 5, 2007 at 4:39 PM | PERMALINK

Enjoy while it lasts and keep in mind that the racist bigots in the South and rural Midwest will be out in force in 2008 to vote Republican no matter who the Republicans run, even a dinosaur like John McCain.

It's a long time between now and then, but I don't see that at all. I think the Cheney administration may be repeating the same favor that Herbert Hoover performed for America -- discrediting the Republican Party for a generation. And even aside from that, the GOP talent pool is about a molecule deep. Nor is it much wider -- the Republican Party is well on its way to becoming the Dixie Party, and they can have it.

Posted by: sglover on January 5, 2007 at 4:43 PM | PERMALINK

Several decades?

Posted by: MDS on January 5, 2007 at 5:15 PM | PERMALINK

cmdicely: Nor is it the case that net neutrality, as usually conceived, stops service providers from charging the people who buy service from them premiums for higher speed or higher volume services.

Correct. Cox offers higher upload and download speeds to residential customers for an extra $5 or $10 a month.

Posted by: anandine on January 5, 2007 at 6:40 PM | PERMALINK

Unlike a lot of liberal bloggers, I don't think net neutrality is quite the bombshell issue it's sometimes treated as, but I still think this is good news.

What a politic statement. It leaves Kevin plenty of time to tailor his stance to any eventuality. I guess he thinks that the verdict is still out on as to whether or not corporations must act only in pursuit of additional profit(or at least temporary stock increases). Apparently the verdict is still out as to whether or not there are significant forces(corporate, congregational, and conspiratorial) who wish to control free speech.

Posted by: Michael7843853 G-O in 08! on January 5, 2007 at 7:45 PM | PERMALINK

God damn SuddenLink is throttling bittorrent traffic. Fucking traffic shapers!

Posted by: Pocket Rocket on January 6, 2007 at 12:25 AM | PERMALINK

You're not -really- worried about metered Internet service, are you? Oy, take a look at net history sometime. Been there, done that, old business model.

The issue of net neutrality is that the corporation will try to put the hammer at the guys on the other end - that is, the "destination" sites. This is practically impossible with the current structure of the Internet, because there are many, many things that the guy on the other end can do to make your life more difficult if you're trying to degrade his service. The idea that you'd be able to do that to Google is silly - they have as much cash and tech power as the internet providers, plus a more savory reputation.

(Not to mention the political suicide involved. Google takes out a full-page ad in the paper explaining why you can't get your search results. Every day. For three months. With phone numbers for competitors. That's gonna hurt your subscriber base a little. Or worse, GOOGLE could get into the business, and then you're in real trouble. ;p)

Posted by: Avatar on January 6, 2007 at 5:43 AM | PERMALINK

A valid concern is the hi tech advancements in the coming decades of entertainment services.

Look at the effect that Web 2.0 has had in just a few years - unless ISPs and telecoms can put together a growing business model that returns ROI, some compromises may have to be strongly analyzed and debated

Posted by: security on January 6, 2007 at 8:42 AM | PERMALINK

Do people like Kevin Drum ever get worked about anything real? It's hard to trust someone who thinks everything is a crisis. But it's equally difficult to trust someone who can live in these times and yet be so calm. Indifference isn't a virtue. It's just not caring.

Posted by: soullite on January 6, 2007 at 10:38 AM | PERMALINK
Unlike a lot of liberal bloggers, I don't think net neutrality is quite the bombshell issue it's sometimes treated as, but I still think this is good news. The internet has prospered under a regime of net neutrality for several decades, and ordinary prudence suggests we should be pretty cautious before abandoning it. After all, we have a pretty good idea that even in the worst case a net neutral regime isn't going to do any enormous harm, and I suspect -- mirable dictu! -- that the phone companies will somehow figure out a way to offer new high-speed services just fine even if they aren't allowed to set up toll lanes.

Don't look now, Kevin, but your conservatism is showing.

Posted by: Rook on January 6, 2007 at 1:32 PM | PERMALINK

"What you can not do with the pictures that you take with your cell phone, is you can not transfer them to any external storage via USB or your internet connection."

What? I can pull my cell phone pics off my phone via an ordinary bluetooth connection to my laptop, and I'm pretty sure everyone else I know can do the same.

Posted by: Julian Sanchez on January 6, 2007 at 8:46 PM | PERMALINK

The Internet has been around long enough now so that at least a couple of generations have grown up assuming that it is a free and open network. There will be a revolution if government or corporate forces restrict it in any way.

Posted by: global yokel on January 7, 2007 at 12:03 AM | PERMALINK

"A regime of net neutrality for several decades?" You understate the speed of the I-revolution.

First of all, the Internet as we know it cannot have predated the invention and release of Mosaic, 1992-93. Thirteen years. As I recall, at that time, the only content not solely text-based was the proprietary offerings by Compuserve and AOL -- the antithesis of net neutrality.

Earlier "'nets" were all text based. I first heard the term "Internet" in about 1991 or '92 -- back then it was all text-based "archie" and "veronica" style servers. (At the time I was an avid e-mailer using BITNET. BITNET worked great until the humanities faculties discovered it, clogging up the lines with their annotations to Moby Dick and the Brothers Karamazov.) There was no obvious profit potential to inspire any net-neutrality controversy.

Posted by: Stuart Eugene Thiel on January 7, 2007 at 9:48 AM | PERMALINK

Its not a political issue, but in terms of fairness, it is huge. In terms of what our society expects its huge.
If you've seen Rick Karrs work for Bill Moyers on net neutrality, then you would know just how bad this is

Posted by: mickslam on January 8, 2007 at 5:13 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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