Great Firewall of Net Neutrality
by Tim Swanson
by Tim Swanson
do anything else, find a pen and write down these numbers: 83, 55,
of net neutrality intersects a broad array of issues. I have discussed
a number of them in the past and this piece will focus on a couple
areas, namely prioritization and discriminatory practices.
order to discuss net neutrality, we need to look at what the internet
is. It is not a browser like Firefox or Internet Explorer. It is
not an IM client like AIM or MSN. And it is not your Kindle or iPhone.
is tens of thousands of public and privately owned networks. A network
is simply two or more computers connected to each other. In many
parts of the world, families and independent businesses own and
operate small local computer networks. In the simplest terms, this
would be a private network. In contrast, if the source of funding
comes from taxpayers – through the NSF or even the PTA – those would
be considered a publicly owned network.
Each of these
networks are isolated silos of knowledge unless they are connected
to other networks.
If you are
reading this article, you somehow gained access to other networks
that pointed you to the LRC server. The traditional way of gaining
access to other people’s networks is through an organization called
an internet service provider (ISP). There are hundreds of these
across the US alone, ranging anywhere in size from small mom-and-pop
operations that serve a few rural farms, to larger urban operations
that serve millions of clients.
The one thing
that these ISPs have in common is that they use standardized hardware
including servers, routers and switches to transport digital packets
from one end of the network, to the other.
Many of these
ISPs sign contracts with one another so that their clients can access
the servers, data, services, and clients on other networks. These
are called peering agreements and are part of a standardized business
practice that continues to evolve with advances in technology. In
a nutshell, they are contracts that state the terms of what each
party is willing to allow to happen on the network, who can be on
it and what kind of data is allowed.
It should also
be noted that not every network, public or private, is connected
to other networks. Sometimes this is a result of privacy and security
concerns, other times it is due to contractual disputes.
in one high-profile case three years ago, Cogent and Level 3 Communications
had a peering dispute that prevented
over a million customers from accessing other networks. After a
couple of days mediating the dispute, they resolved the situation
and their clients were able to traverse back and forth as they had
ISP uses hardware that can detect and monitor what kind of digital
traffic is moving through their network. There are a number of techniques
that they can employ to prioritize and discriminate bits of data.
And in many ways this quality-of-service (QoS) action is very beneficial
for both the customer and network owners.
going back to the numbers mentioned at the beginning: in 2006, roughly
83% of all email sent each day was
unwanted spam. This amounts to anywhere between 60 and 150 billion
pieces of mail each day.
are numerous entities that author and send spam, a large portion
of this spam comes from zombie computers that are referred to as
"botnets." A zombie computer isn’t something that drools
(yet); rather it refers to the fact that the operating system has
been comprised by malicious code in the form of a virus, Trojan
or some kind of worm. Organized hackers are able to cluster compromised
computers into large networks and commercially benefit from property
Many of these
botnet operators will sell access (pdf)
to "their" machines to the likes of mischievous spammers.
As a result, botnets produce tens of millions of unwanted spam each
day and continually evolve in an effort to stay ahead of anti-virus
and anti-hacking endeavors.
in the past two years the Storm
botnet has collected up to 1 million compromised systems which
are used to propagate both spam and malware across the internet.
And more recently, a Brazillian was indicted
over operating a botnet comprised of 100,000 computers.
small and large, are at the forefront of this never-ending battle.
And by using prioritization and discrimination practices, they are
able to hinder, impair and even terminate botnet attacks on their
networks. After all, both for-profit and non-profit have the incentive
to keep their networks operating efficiently for their shareholders
of spam, in 2003, the US federal government passed the CAN-SPAM
Act which was heralded as a heavy-measured stick to ward off
and punish serial spammers. And while there have been several high-profile
cases of scammers, phishers, hackers and traditional spammers being
prosecuted, the volume of unwanted spam has increased more than
100% in the subsequent years. It is a resounding failure by all
objective measurements, as a year into its existence, only 1% of
with the federal act. It hasn’t gained much traction since then.
internet becomes dumb
Wu is a law professor at Columbia is perhaps the best known advocate
of net neutrality activism.
him, net neutrality is legislative protection that would prevent
internet providers from discriminating and prioritizing digital
traffic. In other words, all traffic would be treated the same,
In 2006, there
was a large push from grass-roots activists such as SaveTheInternet
to enact a number of resolutions that met Mr. Wu’s guidelines.
none of the legislation passed, yet the movement has gained momentum
and includes people from all walks of life, including indie rock
stars, bloggers like BoingBoing, viral phenoms like Ask-A-Ninja
and tech luminaries such as Vint Cerf.
large media and content firms such as Google, Microsoft and brick-and-mortar
companies such as CBS have joined forces to lobby Congress to pass
net neutrality legislation. Furthermore, it has become a partisan
issue as presidential candidate Barack Obama, a Democrat, supports
it, and John McCain, a Republican opposes it.
On August 1,
2008, a divided FCC voted to admonish
and punish Comcast, an ISP. In the ruling – the first of its
kind the federal regulators found the company guilty of violating
net neutrality principles for throttling and blocking traffic based
on the BitTorrent protocol.
taking the company to court for what appears to be fraud, false
advertising or violating a service agreement, lawmakers have created
a legal environment of uncertainty. Kevin Martin, FCC Commissioner,
voted in favor of penalizing Comcast. However, both Martin and Tim
Wu have repeatedly stated that ISPs should be allowed to
prioritize Voice-over-IP (VoIP) communication – creating a nebulous
exception to their rule.
us back to the numbers again: in 2006, 21% of all international
phone minutes were conducted
with VoIP. This technology, while not new, has been very disruptive
as it has taken away swaths of market share from the traditional
circuit switched enterprises. By 2010, it is predicted that more
than half of all international calling minutes will use VoIP.
If net neutrality
laws are enacted, VoIP usage would become an impractical means of
communication hence the reason it is exempted by most net neutrality
laws. The main reason has to do with the nature of the service.
The most efficient phone call is one in which there is no discernable
lag time between the talking of each party. Because VoIP shares
the same networks that all other internet traffic is routed through,
achieving low-latency becomes a never-ending battle. It has to compete
with spam, malware, denial-of-service attacks, as well as streaming
videos, file transfers and video games.
Over the past
decade, most ISPs have prioritized internet traffic based on a number
of factors. And while each list is somewhat different, ISPs generally
try to give VoIP callers higher throughput priority.
of these ISPs have also dug themselves into a hole with unlimited
usage agreements. While there is no such thing as a libertarian
business model, it would seem unwise to offer unlimited anything
and expect that no one will take advantage of it.
according to Time Warner (an ISP), a mere 5% of its customers use
more than half of its available bandwidth, and 25% of its customers
use 85% of it. And the vast majority of this traffic is generated
through peer-to-peer (P2P) transfers like music and movies.
The most popular
P2P application used by these customers is one called BitTorrent.
Which brings us to the last number. According to its creator Brahm
Cohen, BitTorrent comprises
55% of all internet traffic (incidentally Cohen has spoken out against
net neutrality legislation).
In order to
insure that VoIP conversations remain discernable, ISPs will throttle
or limit the speed at which BitTorrent traffic can flow through
their networks. As a result, advocates of net neutrality have cried
foul due to the discriminatory nature of this model and the recent
Comcast case provided them with ammo to continue their witch hunt.
Thus, on the
one hand they want access to other networks, but on the other, they
don’t want to abide by service agreements that implement throttling.
The easiest solution to this quagmire is to simply switch ISPs –
which I discuss here.
If net neutrality
laws are enacted, not only would time-sensitive applications like
VoIP be negatively effected, but so would telemedicine, telepresence
and twitch gaming.
is a nascent field that involves having a group of doctors virtually
operating on a patient perhaps as far away as the other side of
the planet. Cases have ranged from merely consulting other physicians
to actually remotely operating a surgical robot. If ISPs were not
allowed to discriminate, then this function will be severely impaired
due to the low-latency requirements it needs.
is another budding field in which business meetings can be held
thousands of miles apart with the aid of digital monitors and web
cams. Instead of commuting or flying across the planet, business
associates could simply rent a telepresence room and speak face-to-face
with their colleagues. However, like VoIP and telemedicine, low-latency
and high-throughput is necessary for achieving real-time conversations.
gaming includes both online gaming found on consoles as well as
PC games. The lower the latency, the more effective players will
be at achieving strategic victory (i.e., beating their opponents).
If net neutrality legislation was passed, ISPs could not effectively
prioritize this traffic.
Right now there
are several companies that provide solutions actually operate by
discriminatory practices for customers: GameRail offers the lowest
possible latencies for online computer gamers, Cisco maintains telepresence
rooms across the globe, and Akamai operates one of the largest video-caching
services (a similar service was
used by Limelight to serve videos for the summer Olympics).
Each of these services prioritizes traffic along networks they lease
or own. And according to net neutrality advocates such as RampRate,
this is bad.
cost a thing to build a new network or upgrade an old one
one thing that net neutrality advocates continually overlook is
that bandwidth is scarce. It is scarce in America as it is scarce
in both Asia and Europe. Furthermore, building and maintaining a
network is a very capital-intensive endeavor with low return-on-investment.
For example, earlier this year, Google and six other companies pooled
together resources to fund
a $300 million fiber optic link between the West coast and Japan.
Constructing this line will take several years and won’t be complete
to build a new backbone on land, entrepreneurs must: pay for permits,
conduct environmental studies, rent or buy property, recruit labor,
apply for technology licenses, purchase construction materials,
install fiber optics, manage network equipment, and even play the
game of politics. All told breaking new ground in an urban environment
like Dallas can cost up to $1 million per mile.
Yet, if net
neutrality legislation is enacted, the federal government will essentially
be telling ISPs that they no longer own their own networks (i.e.,
network operators can no longer do whatever they want with their
own property). Thus, this has become a battle over property rights.
And as a result, many entrepreneurs and capitalists will no longer
invest in the capital resources necessary to maintain or upgrade
On this point,
while Vint Cerf (a "father of the internet") is a vocal
advocate for net neutrality (and
socialism), his peer Bob Kahn (another "father of the internet")
that net neutrality legislation will remove the incentives for any
company to build-out a next generation infrastructure.
In fact, if
advocates of net neutrality were to truly put their money where
their mouth was, they would have taken their purses and built new
backbones to accommodate their egalitarian service plans. At least
the owners of
Copowi have done so.
why have these advocates not formed protest around other industries
that use prioritization? For instance:
airline operators like JetBlue charge variable rates based on
numerous factors including if you booked weeks in advance – yet
you arrive at the same destination as those who pay more.
- Most sport
teams will charge variable rates based on what section of the
stadium you sit in, if you purchase as a group, and what day of
the week – yet everyone watches the same game.
parks such as Six Flags sell both general admission and express
passes which allow ticket holders to skip lines entirely – yet
everyone goes on the same ride.
- Mail delivery
carriers like DHL, UPS, FedEx and even the US Postal Service charge
variable rates and prioritize mail based on size and speed at
which the package will be delivered – yet all of the packages
on a plane arrive at the same location.
the most blatant disregard for hypothetical neutrality laws is Google
itself. Dave Girourad, a manager at Google, has
stated that "PageRank relies on more than 100 variables." Thus,
why is it unfair for an ISP to use various factors to transmit and
organize data? It is their infrastructure.
the non-existent problem
is not a public utility, nor should it be treated as such. In fact,
up until the late 1980s the network was largely nationalized and
innovated at a snails pace. It was not until the primary backbones
and datacenters were privatized that the modern internet was born
due to commercial incentives for private entrepreneurs. And by renationalizing
the pipes, the federal government will be undoing all of the liberalization
that has made the internet glorious.
The real problem,
and one that appears to be politically unthinkable, is a complete
decriminalization of the telecommunications industry. We have tried
regulation and socialism for over 130 years (with the original government
patent to Bell). Yet today, the industry is still heavily regulated
and is by no means a deregulated encapsulation of laissez faire
is a solution to a problem that does not exist and only serves to
centralize federal control yet again. In addition, if an ISP breaks
a contract, there is already a legal framework in place to deal
with service agreements. So how would data discrimination warrant
the need for new oversight?
by granting more power to the FCC, this would only be handing more
snooping power to a government that has continually shown to abuse
existing mandates and treat everyone as a potential terrorist.
in an ironic twist, while individuals like Lawrence Lessig and organizations
the EFF have detailed NSA
wiretapping surveillance abuses, they are now unwittingly promoting
a stealthy federal power grab that would be just as omnipotent.
After all, the FCC, Justice Department and FTC will need to monitor
every ISP to make sure no discrimination or prioritization takes
Maybe the government
will be nicer this time around, right?
Swanson [send him mail]
is a graduate of Texas A&M University. He currently lives in
South Korea and is a free-lance IT consultant. Visit his blog.
© 2008 LewRockwell.com