October 23, 2007

My stance on "Net Neutrality" - I'm staying OUT

With yet another "Net Neutrality" brouhaha in full swing, I think it's finally time I did a public post declaring my own, if not exactly neutrality, profound disinterest in being "used".

My executive summary: If Google/Yahoo/etc. OR the telcos, want me to act as a lobbyist for them, they can pay me, at lobbyist rates. No unpaid lobbyist work. Rich companies on either side do not need my help. And while it may be my undoing, I'm not going to join up for the dubious PR.

This whole issue is driven by a fight between content-providers versus telecommunications companies over who will pay for the cost of upgrades to network infrastructure. The telecommunications companies want to pit the content-providers against each other, essentially in an auction for best service, and hence extract more money. The content-providers don't want to play that game, and want to make sure the telecommunications companies can't even try it.

This is worth BILLIONS of dollars, and both parties know it. You can see the lobbying money in all the astroturf and camp-followers. But it's got nothing to do with freedom, democracy, or making little girls cry because their website is slow.

It's not for me.

Pre-emptive: Please don't try to recruit me with the pitch that without Net Neutrality, the telecos could impose censorware. They already can. In fact, there's already a specific non-net-neutrality censorware provision in US law for the telecos, that dates from the 1996 Communications Decency Act: "Protection for private blocking and screening of offensive material":

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on of account

(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected; or ...

I've heard this pitch from a few people in the past, one I'm confident was well-intentioned, another I have my doubts about. Which sort of tells you the level of the debate.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in activism | on October 23, 2007 02:52 PM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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Wrong. If you don't think packet-discrimination or web extortion will affect you, you're not thinking very hard about this.

Several times now, Comcast has already blocked access to Google for me (poison DNS responses, apparently). Whether this is a bug in Sandvine, or Comcast just testing the waters is irrelevant--they're taking my money and providing only part of the service they promised.

Posted by: Brianary at October 23, 2007 05:49 PM

I'm pretty sure that the effect on most everybody's life will be minimal, even if the telecos do manage to extort the content companies. Certainly not so much that I want to volunteer to do unpaid lobbying for the latter.

Do you really, really, think Comcast is deliberately interfering with your connection to Google?

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at October 23, 2007 06:35 PM

I'm disappointed (PC sort of word) in your view Finkelstein. You've misrepresented the circumstances and significance (at least potential and potential is everything - haven't we learned that in the last seven years?) of the issues involved.

Describing the issue as a fight between telecoms and content providers is missing the point or purposely misdirecting. It's only fortunate that Google is taking the side of Net neutrality. They can be hurt by telecoms that may decide to get into whatever businesses Google provides. Competition is fine but unfair competition isn't. But that's the big-boys' issue that you've pointed out and misrepresented.

We are the little-guys and we're the ones who'll get the shaft. We're already getting reamed by telecoms. The U.S. is way behind in providing anything close to state of the art speed and features and yet the pricing here is much higher than other countries.

"This whole issue is driven by a fight between content-providers versus telecommunications companies over who will pay for the cost of upgrades to network infrastructure."

This point is bogus as I've already indicated. We're already over priced and under serviced due to a lack of competition in the telecom industry. We've paid for the "upgrades to network infrastructure" and gotten very little for our money.

"The telecommunications companies want to pit the content-providers against each other, essentially in an auction for best service, and hence extract more money. The content-providers don't want to play that game, and want to make sure the telecommunications companies can't even try it."

You're pulling that outta your butt. Google has no problem competing with other content providers. They've excelled at whatever they've tried. The problem is when the telecoms become major content providers. If they control the wires they control the competition. You've ignored that. That's not a fair competition. That's the concern that companies like Google have. Not with competing with others in a fair market.

But these are the issues facing the existing billion dollar companies. They are secondary to the issues facing average citizens. You've dismissed censorship with the censorware example. The problem with that is that censorship based on pornography in one form or another is very different from censorship based on political motives. We've already seen political censorship and that's one of the major concerns with Net neutrality. Major telecoms with strong dependencies on government contracts and considerations are likely to provide political censorship. The fewer the number and bigger the size of the telecoms, the less the difficulty in their forming mutually beneficial relationships with government. With that, censorship and surveillance become too easy. The little guys suffer and "little guys" are small and medium sized businesses and small, medium and larger web pages and sites. That's us. That's also DailyKos, TalkingPointsMemo, Salon and the other blogs and sites that have become the voice of expression and reason on the web. That's the fundamental key and the one that's the concern of most of the people and bloggers that are actively involved with the issue.

Even on the business level, as Doc Searls points out, everything in the current Internet is directed towards making the Net into cable television - a one way line. That's another form of control, unfair competition and censorship. We've already got that with measures that are questionable in terms of cost related to services. Must the cost of having a connection with an upload speed comparable to the download speed really be much higher than what is usually offered for average Net users? I don't think so. It's a way of forcing a one way cable television like environment and restricting individual activity. That exists now so it's technically not a Net neutrality issue, or at least one that will be newly seen in the future. It's with us now. But it's not just an unfair business practice. It's also a form of censorship in that upload is the way individuals can provide input, in terms of "speech" and also in terms of competition. Wouldn't it be nice if someone with a Youtube video that gets a million views could reap the ad revenue on it directly, without Google? Sure they'd have to pay the usage cost but if they've worked out their ads well, they'd be getting the big profits.

Net neutrality is much more than Google v AT&T et.al or naughty porn. I'm sorry you don't make a living or even "a little on the side" from blogging, but really, this isn't just about you.

P.S. Since I don't get any money doing this I don't have much incentive to organize my usual stream of consciousness rant into something more coherent. But then you've probably not read this far anyway. :P

Posted by: Amos Anan at October 23, 2007 10:44 PM

Sorry Amos, you've been fooled. This is one reason I hate the topic. Because that particular bit of deception is pretty common. That is, "Neutrality" is used to conflate censorship and access pricing issues, so that all the civil-libertarians can be emotionally manipulated via the censorship meaning, though the money is in the access pricing meaning. This confusion is not an accident, but a strategy.

Basically, you're being conned by professional liars.

Note 99% of individual Internet users download and don't upload except in a trivial sense. Home-use service is always going to reflect this. It's not a malicious arrangement, it's simple economics.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at October 24, 2007 12:04 AM

The content companies (e.g. google) get visitors to their site because they provide content (seems obvious huh) which is of value to those visitors. The ISP customers pay money to their ISP because they want to access that content (i.e. google).

If the ISP decides not to deliver, or if they decide to deliver crappy alternative product that they can only foist on people by crippling the competing content then the ISP detracts from their own value in the eyes of their customers. Customers go walking and churn to another ISP.

The only time there would be a problem is when the available choices of carrier are narrow (which is not the current situation). The only thing we have to do in order to protect competitive content is to ensure that there are plenty of alternative ISPs (including those providing long haul backbone links to the higher tiers). Do that, and everything else "Just Works".

Protecting a competitive market is a requirement for any operational Capitalist system, because people can be trusted to be untrustworthy.

If there's one single thing that our government could provide to help the Capitalist system work, it's truth in advertising. That is, provide complete protection from lawsuit for anyone who wants to make a test of any product or service and who wants to publish the details of the test along with the results of that test.

The trouble is that it is very difficult to legislate truth, the best you can do is legislate a process by which dishonesty tends to usually be evident (which mostly should be good enough).

Posted by: Tel at October 24, 2007 08:11 AM


The problem with censorship (just like the problems we have with police corruption, abuse of human rights, victimisation of minorities, political payoffs, government support of torture and corporate kickbacks) is that most people don't actually care.

The very small number who do care feel the need to make a big fuss in an effort to compensate for everyone else. The problem is that making a big fuss doesn't make the majority more interested in fixing the problem, it makes them less interested.

Freedom sounds like a great idea, but most people really don't want it. They want someone else to sort things out for them. They don't want to be bothered with making decisions. Don't blame Comcast for these problems, blame the lazy guy on a nearby subnet.

Posted by: Tel at October 24, 2007 08:27 AM

Do you have any *reason* to assume that this will not affect "most people"?

Just for the record, I *don't* think Comcast is intentionally blocking Google at this point. I suspect Sandworm is just buggy, but as I said, that's pretty irrelevant.

The whole point of "Web 2.0" is that we are ALL content sources now. What happens when this blog becomes popular, even for a single post? Will you have to bribe Comcast, et al. to allow the traffic through? Will there be a secret, hidden metering that you have to pay for, but ISPs don't have to advertise? Will anyone be able to afford success?

I don't even think Google is that worried about it. They have plenty of cash, and can easily afford extortion. ISPs are not likely to kill their Golden Goose. In fact, this is likely to preserve Google's search dominance, since small companies may have more trouble coughing up the cash when they hit a tipping point.

And don't pretend you're taking the high road.

First of all, you AREN'T staying out of it. You aren't saying "that's a good point, but I still don't know" and moving on. You are actively arguing *against* an extortion ban.

Second, choosing not to choose is still a choice, though a cowardly one, by my estimation. Am I saying that if you're not with us you're against us? I suppose so, but "status quo" vs. "no extortion or bribery" is a pretty binary position. Practically speaking, how is your "staying out of it" any different from "everything's fine, let's not keep companies from extorting"?

Posted by: Brianary at October 24, 2007 11:11 AM

You know, I thought you were real before I read your phony, arrogant reply to Amos. You completely dismissed his censorship concerns, in a less than convincing way, but ignored the rest of his comment. I guess you are the only one that's able to see the lies. Thank goodness you're there to explain it to us.

"Basically, you're being conned by professional liars."

Basically, huh? After illegal wiretapping, there is no valid concern about politics online? Care to explain that one, or is this just another pronouncement from on high?

"...it's simple economics."

Nope. That would hold water if we had ever had decent upload speeds, and it just never got used. Today, we're constantly hitting our head on that ceiling. BitTorrent is huge. Uploading video is huge. Skype is huge. Don't tell us that upload doesn't matter, we know better.

No ads here? Convince me you aren't making money on this site some other way...

Posted by: Brianary at October 24, 2007 11:42 AM

Brianary, if you think I'm "not real", I don't know what I could say to convince you otherwise. Moreover, if you think I'm making money on this site, well, besides a rueful laugh, I have nothing more to say.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at October 25, 2007 12:05 AM

Well, to start, you could at least address some of my points. You claim to be neutral, but I just don't hear an ounce of conflict in your arguments. There isn't a single "but" or "on the other hand". You just keep pulling hard for the telcos/ISPs.

And let's face it: your blog is immature--it only goes back a month, and not heavily commented. What would you think? It looks a lot like astroturfing or sock puppetry.

Posted by: Brianary at October 25, 2007 01:21 AM

Brianary says: "your blog is immature--it only goes back a month"

To anybody else reading this: What would YOU do?

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at October 25, 2007 01:37 AM

"To anybody else reading this: What would YOU do?"

I think some name and shame would be a good plan.

He/she/it has a site listed - is there anything in your logs that lets you get a real handle on their identity? Then publish the info so they can see how loud an astroturfing sockpuppet can be.

Posted by: tqft at October 25, 2007 03:22 AM

Brian Lalonde of Spokane Washington also said "you could at least address some of my points". But, apparently that didn't merit any response.

Am I wrong? Is this blog older than I thought? Clearly, based on a little looking around, you are "real". I'm still puzzled about why you defend Comcast so aggressively.

Regarding the threat: Anytime anyone feels ready to bring the shame I'll be here. If you'd like to just answer questions, though, it'll save you enduring the horrors of modern air travel.

Posted by: Brianary at October 25, 2007 07:32 PM

@tqft - Naah, maybe a mean A-lister would do that, but I try to flame "up", not "down".

@Brianary - If you examine the lower left-hand corner of the main page of the blog, you will see links to archive files going back five years. I'm not pro-telecom (I actually think the content companies are right in the overall issue). I'm anti-demagogue. I hate being used as a pawn. And that's what's going on here. If Congress passed a law tomorrow saying "Any telecomm service must be offered at the same pricing to any content company which wants it", then all the huffing and puffing about THE-TELECOS-ARE-CENSORS! would vanish that minute. ISP "censorship" powers have been law for a decade, and you never heard a word about it until lobbyists decided to use it as part of a PR tactic in their money dispute with the telecos. And when that dispute is settled, you'll never hear about it again.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at October 25, 2007 09:59 PM

Sorry about impugning your motives (really).

I should have seen the month navigation; somehow I just missed that.

I don't think I'm a pawn in this, though. I just don't want to see the Internet turned into the music industry. I don't think this issue really has anything to do with censorship--as I've said, it just sounds like a typical shakedown to me.

I do think that trying to ignore the issue strengthens the telco position, and that "content providers" includes most Internet users now. I do think this has an effect on freedom, because fewer websites would be able to afford success.

"Any telecomm service must be offered at the same pricing to any content company which wants it"

Perfect idea. I hope it happens.

Posted by: Brianary at October 26, 2007 12:02 PM


I'm with you on this one... actually, it reminds me of one of my comments on Jeff Jarvis' blog (the seeking compensation as a PR person part)


P.S. BTW, I sent you an email yesterday with a little request... (don't worry if you just didn't have the time for it -- just wanted to make sure you got it) D.

Posted by: Delia at October 27, 2007 07:13 PM

Brianary wrote:

"I do think this has an effect on freedom, fewer websites would be able to afford success."

Hmm. Poll a bunch of content providers (bloggers, vloggers, sloggers), and ask them:

1. Is your ability to reach an audience hampered by your site's upload bandwidth? (and if so, does your ISP offer you more at a competitive rate?)

2. Is your ability to reach an audience hampered by a scarcity of attention, of links, of search hits, of gatekeepers to spread the word? (and if so, do you even know *whom* you're supposed to grease?)

The perspective that Seth gives, and I have supplied some bit of research on, is that #2 is a far more real concern for People Who Want To Be Heard. (Just ask Dennis Kucinich-- he recently finished behind Stephen Colbert in a poll of Democratic voters.)

It's hard even to quantify #1 as a "shakedown" because the market for TCP/IP bandwidth is pretty transparent, and thus competitive. But when it comes to marketing bandwidth, it's anyone's guess what the going rate is.

Posted by: Jon Garfunkel at October 29, 2007 01:22 AM