There is lots of talk about "net neutrality" now, after years of passionate advocacy by partisans. I have a simple response to the issue, driven by my simple-minded engineer's mentality. There's no problem here, so don't you dare try to "fix" it!
The way "net neutrality" is normally described, it's shocking that it's not already the rule of the land. Net neutrality is described as being like racial discrimination, something which is obviously unacceptable in a civilized society. (Just to be clear: discriminating on the basis of race, sex or any other human variation is totally unacceptable to me.) It amounts to evil internet service providers slowing down or discarding network packets from sources of which they don't approve, and speeding up access to approved sources. This could be done for commercial gain, to push some brand of politics, or any number of nefarious motives.
The argument in favor of net neutrality is normally made in terms of simple fairness: preventing giant ISP's from preventing or impeding access to internet resources customers want. The feared consequences will range from high prices and/or poor service for companies whose services threaten the ISP's such as Netflix, to barring consumers from accessing politically or commercially threatening web sites. Anyone who opposes this view of enforcing simple fairness is accused of being paid off by corporate interests or morally corrupt. Or simply stupid, for not understanding how the internet works.
I claim that I am none of the above: not bought off, not morally corrupt, not stupid, and furthermore relatively knowledgeable of internet internals.
It would take a long paper or short book to lay out all the facts and arguments. I don't have the time or the patience. But here are some headlines.
"Net Neutrality" is all about Innovation-Killing Regulation
Net Neutrality may be a moral crusade about fairness and equality for many of those who promote it, but the proposed solution is that the same inept crew that raises costs, protects the powerful and stifles innovation in so much of our lives will now be able to wield their magic-killing wands on the internet. It's not about "fairness" -- it's about control by a bunch of ignorant, remote bureaucrats.
Here's a good summary, see the article for more:
The Internet boomed precisely because it wasn’t regulated. In 1999 the FCC published a paper titled “The FCC and the Unregulation of the Internet.” The study contrasted the dramatic growth of the open Internet with that of the sluggish industries subject to Title II’s more than 1,000 regulations. Sen. Ted Cruz got it right last week when he tweeted that Title II would be ObamaCare for the Internet.
Amazing as it seems, under these regulations federal bureaucrats in the 1970s decided whether AT&T could move beyond standard black telephones to offer Princess phones in pink, blue and white. A Title II Internet would give regulators similar authority to approve, prioritize and set “just and reasonable” prices for broadband, the lifeblood of the Internet.
You're Afraid Greedy ISP's Might Limit Internet Access?
Really? Well, just wait until the government gets involved. Once a bunch of bureaucrats operating essentially in secret gets going, it's hard to stop them.
It's well-known that South Korea has the world's fastest internet connections. But the internet there is anything but free and open. Government-driven censorship is severe. Here are some of the basics:
Internet censorship in South Korea has been categorized as "pervasive" in the conflict/security area, and also present in the social area. Categories of censorship include "subversive communication", "materials harmful to minors", and "pornography and nudity". Internet censorship has been expressed by the shutting down of anti-conscription and gay and lesbian websites, the arrest of activists from North Korea-sympathetic parties, and the deletion of blog posts by writers who criticize the South Korean president. Censors particularly target anonymous forums; South Koreans who publish content on the Internet are required by law to verify their identity with their citizen identity number. The most common form of censorship at present involves ordering internet service providers to block the IP address of disfavored websites. A government agency announced the planning of new systems of pre-censorship of controversial material in the future.
ISP problems are Caused by Regulation. The Cure is More Regulation??
The ISP's, like Comcast, Cablevision, Time Warner, Verizon and the rest, provide the "last mile" of access to the internet. They're the guys who bill you for use. All the rest of the internet just magically happens, supported by a variety of means, mostly advertising.
The last mile is where the problem is. These guys are mostly descendents of the phone and cable companies. They exist and operate at the pleasure of various federal, state and local regulators. Just like the power companies, they have centers from which their wires weave out to sub-stations, down major streets, branching to local streets and eventually to houses and buildings. More agencies than you can shake a stick at stand in their way at every step, demanding this and that. In exchange, they get a monopoly or close to one.
Are these nimble, creative, innovative guys? Duhhhh. How can they be? They go to all the trouble to put wiring in, and they try to keep it in service as long as they can, milking every advantage out of it they can. Given all that, I'm surprised things work as well as they do.
Bottom line: the ISP's are already regulated. That's their problem. Let's not make it worse by adding in federal regulation and spreading it to more of the system. Since when has federal regulation made technology better?
There are Fast Lanes and Slow Lanes on the Internet. And the Problem Is???
Advocates of net neutrality are big on talking about how grubby issues of crass money will cause unfavored sites and consumers to be relegated to the slow lanes of the internet, while all the fat cats will cruise on the fast lanes.
Exactly how is this different from, like, everything else in life?
There is nothing like "NY Yankees neutrality," for example. Here's the price and the view from the expensive seats:
And here's the price and the view from the bleachers:
How unfair! How unequal! Someone should do something about Yankees neutrality!
By comparison, all the "seats" on the internet offered by ISP's are just fabulous. Access rates are thousands of times faster than in the past, and at good prices. You can get even faster speeds if you're willing to pay -- and that's OK.
The Greatest Current Threat to the Internet is Apps and Mobile
"Net Neutrality" is mostly a "what-if" threat, based on the minimal things ISP's have done, and the horrible things someone imagines they could do. Apps, driven by mobile, are a huge, here-and-now threat, growing by the day. As users shift their attention to mobile, they are shifting away from the open, highly competitive web to the walled gardens of the mobile world, which is exactly what monopolistic giants like Apple, Google and Facebook want.
Here's a good summary, see the article for much more:
It isn’t that today’s kings of the app world want to quash innovation, per se. It is that in the transition to a world in which services are delivered through apps, rather than the Web, we are graduating to a system that makes innovation, serendipity and experimentation that much harder for those who build things that rely on the Internet. And today, that is pretty much everyone.
The Internet is Wildly Complex and Rapidly Evolving
People who complain about net neutrality typically have no idea how the internet works and how it's evolved over time. There's a lot going on; it's not just a set of pipes that get bigger and faster over time.
This is the part that's tough for me to limit what I say. While there are people who have spent more time inside the internet and its predecessors than I have, I was involved early, in the ARPA-net in 1970 and 1971 at a time when it had fewer than ten nodes, and periodically since then to the present. Here's the ARPA net in 1977:
A good chunk of the fun stuff, both the power and the problems of the internet, comes from the fact that the "internet" is a network of networks, an "inter-network" that connects many networks together, sort of like the interstate highway system connects the states, though much less uniformly than that. Here's an early version of the network of networks:
If this were the interstate highway system, some things to note would be:
- ISP's control the local roads and entrance ramps to the big roads.
- There are different ways to drive cross-country.
- If you care a lot about drive time, you get to know the best routes.
- If speed is really important to you, you take the toll roads to avoid the choke points. This is the origin of Internap, for example; its big early customer was Amazon.
- If you've got lots of stuff to deliver to many customers in many cities, you pre-deliver it to warehouses near the customers, so that when they order, delivery is fast. We call it a CDN, content delivery network.
- Special sub-networks are constantly being developed to solve problems, and the people who use them pay for their use. Business as usual.
The fact that the internet is an evolving web of variously connected networks is key to its vitality and astounding growth. Let's stand back and enjoy its continued unimpeded, unregulated growth.
Worried about Comcast and Netflix? You Shouldn't Be
Net Neutrality adocates like to create fear with all the things big scary ISP's could do that would be just awful -- therefore we have to regulate them before they do those things, as in the Philip Dick story The Minority Report. They also love to recount the charges Netflix has made against Comcast as evidence of actual wrong-doing. In other words, they like to take the side of the monopolist of content (Netflix) against the local monopoly of access (Comcast). Once you dig all the way to the bottom, you realize that Netflix wanted to be able to dump content onto Comcast's network amounting to more than a quarter of its total traffic and demand that Comcast deliver it with uninterrupted regularity -- for free, leaving Netflix to keep all the money it charged its customers. In the end, they cut a deal similar to typical CDN deals (see above).
When you buy HBO, you expect that the cable company and HBO somehow split what you give them -- why should you care what they work out? But then when you buy Netflix, net neutrality advocates demand that the cable company deliver it for free. Only on Planet Stupid is this anything like "fair."
A cardinal rule in engineering is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Enthusiastic young engineers break this rule all the time. Hard experience usually educates them. Applying that rule to the internet, we get: the internet is a big collection of moving parts and blobs, constantly evolving. It works remarkably well. Parts of it are crappier and slower than they could be, anywhere from 2X to well over 1,000X. Most people who operate various parts of the internet have no reason to care about the ultimate consumer experience and act accordingly. The slowest and crappiest parts of the internet stay in use way past their natural expiration dates, but eventually die off. The biggest entities and/or the most regulated and/or the most monopolistic tend to be the slowest and crappiest of all. They try to implement and/or enforce practices and technologies from many years ago, and do so poorly, at great expense to themselves and everyone involved. Sometimes they act in a nakedly self-interested or "principled" way and make things even worse. But all in all, the consumer experience on the internet has improved with remarkable speed and few glitches compared to almost anything else, and way better than if it had been regulated. So let's leave it alone, and worry about the true threats.