Net Neutrality

I’m intrigued that Menick believes that the proposed LD topic about net neutrality is interesting, but lacks depth, and doesn’t entail any broad implications about society. I disagree, and since when we disagree and bicker people apparently love to watch, I figured I’d do the world the favor (?) of writing it up and airing it in public.   That’s the genteel thing to do, isn’t it?

Granted, this topic may be exactly in my wheelhouse, and would let me pull all kinds of awful stunts like writing cases based on obscure internet routing protocols that I know in my dayjob and precious few other debatefolk have even heard of.   (I wouldn’t.)   It’s also badly worded; it talks of internet neutrality, which is a phrase that means nothing, instead of the actual term of art which is net neutrality. If the topic is selected, I fear that phrase will become the ship that launched a thousand Ks. I gather the shift to internet from net is because the folks in the committee hadn’t heard of the term net neutrality, and felt it needed explaining.   Of course, I don’t feel a resolution should explain itself; that’s what research is for.   Half second with Google would have done the trick.   Worded like it is, the selfsame Google search still yields results, but not as good — and I’m sure some kid somewhere will be confused when those results all refer to Net Neutrality and not this “internet neutrality” thing in the topic, and go off the deep end.

What is net neutrality?   Well, a network, generally speaking, is composed of two elements.   You need nodes or endpoints by which humans interface with it.   And you need connectors between the nodes, which make sure the right node is connected to the right other node.     To do so, a network has to have intelligence somewhere within it; that is, either the nodes or the connectors (or both) need to know what’s being sent out over the network and what’s being listened to, and how it’s supposed to get between node A and node B.

A critical question of network design is where the intelligence to run the network lives.   The phone system in this country is a network where all the intelligence lives in the connectors.   In the old days, a human operator actually physically connected your wire to the phone you wanted to call; eventually that was automated so that your phone sent a request to an automated operator by means of the phone number you dialed.   However, the phone network permits only one type of traffic, sound.   Furthermore, the information about how to link two phones is entirely in the connectors; your phone itself didn’t know how to do anything except make the request.   So it’s a smart network with dumb, single-purpose nodes.

The internet is organized on the opposite principle.   The connectors in computer networks are called routers — and yes, your home wireless connector is a router.   Routers are very stupid; they only know how to do one thing, which is to take data of any kind that gets sent to them and push that data closer to its intended destination.   The data hops from router to router, until it finally lands on the computer it’s destined for.   The content of the data doesn’t matter; the router never looks inside the data to see what it is; it only cares about the address the data is intended for.     The computers on either end are wholly responsible for encoding and decoding the data into a form — email, website, etc — which you can use.   Thus, the Internet is a dumb, single purpose network with smart, multi-purpose nodes

The telephone network is a controlled network; it can only be put to uses approved in advance by the phone company — who usually charge for the privilege: note the humble text message, which costs an absurd amount of money for a very small amount of data.   The phone company can control phones in yet more sinister ways, such as listening to your calls or forbidding you to call certain people, both of which are illegal — or permit governments to do so, which is legal under ever widening circumstances.

However, a dumb network doesn’t know what traffic you’re sending over it.   The data type doesn’t matter to the dumb network.   It’s the computers’ job to send, receive and interpret the data, not the router’s.   So as long as two computers can understand a given type of data, it’s fair game.   Furthermore, a given type of data doesn’t cost anything more than any other type to send — unlike text messages, which cost a lot more per bit than voice calls do.

The phone network has been around for a century; while the mainstream Internet is barely a decade old.   However, far more innovations and applications are based on the Internet than phones.   To build a new phone application, you have to convince a small set of highly conservative monopolists to let you onto Their network.   If you want to create an Internet protocol for a new and novel use, you simply buy a commodity internet connection; your provider doesn’t know or care what you’re sending across it; only your audience’s computers need to know.   Thus, the barriers to entry for new applications are minimal on a dumb network, so new applications we have aplenty: email, the Web, instant messaging, filesharing, and finally VOIP, which threatens to replace the phone network itself.

A dumb network is a neutral network, which is our current status quo.   A non-neutral network would be aware of the type of data being sent across it, not simply its origin and destination.   Some kinds of traffic would be prioritized over others, usually because the purveyors of that content paid for that priority.     Other kinds of traffic might be banned altogether.     In general, the Internet would become more like the phone network; you might need prior approval from a small band of monopolists to get a new application or data type through to your end users.   The days of the small disruptive application that destroys an existing, powerful industry might well be over; the phone networks could pay ISPs to cut off Skype; filesharing would be cut off by payments from Hollywood.

The Internet today is not totally neutral.   China regulates the flow of traffic in and out of the country, in ways that are easily circumvented but nonetheless are effective in dampening the free flow of information there.   Within the US, DSL providers are regulated like phone networks, and must not regulate the free flow of traffic, but cable and fiber internet providers are not regulated the same way, and are free to shape network traffic as they please.   Verizon DSL must allow you to go to Comcast’s website, but Comcast can legally make visits to Verizon’s website very slow, or fail altogether.   Cable companies therefore could shape traffic at any time, and some propose to do so; but as yet they haven’t begun, at least not publicly.   So our network is functionally, at least, neutral.

An open network is a freewheeling world, where innovation mixes with danger.   Net neutrality enshrines the rights of small disruptive companies to threaten established monopolies.   Skype may destroy landline phone companies.   Google Voice sends free text messages over my existing data plan, which shaved $15 off my monthly phone bill.     It can come with what are arguably harms, at least to some people.   For instance, file sharing removes the teeth from a government granted monopoly on content, which means the market for content is now competitive; in a competitive market, the cost of an item is driven towards to the marginal cost; which in the case of digital information is zero.   Thus, the death of newspapers and music recording stores.   A neutral network encourages creativity, which is economically efficient, but with that creativity comes creative destruction, which may or may not be socially useful.

A neutral network, however, is a difficult to maintain.   Netflix cannot pay for the privilege of streaming its movies to you in a priority manner, making interruptions less frequent and the quality better.   A few highly active users can swamp a neutral network segment to the detriment of others.   Without some form of traffic shaping, costs and therefore prices may rise faster than otherwise.   Therefore, if a neutral network and a non-neutral one were in an open market competition, it’s likely the non-neutral one would win out; it’d be cheaper, feature higher quality video streaming, and at the end of the day, the average citizen isn’t that subversive, and likely wouldn’t care about the lost potential for future disruptive technologies.   Therefore, a net neutrality regime is necessarily coercive to all ISPs; whose right to regulate and manage their networks as they see fit is curtailed.

Socially, the presence of network neutrality ensures a vibrant and subversive public sphere.   The Admiral wonders who the Thoreau of network neutrality is; my nomination at the moment is Al Gore, whose book The Assault on Reason (Amazon) should be the first stop of anyone thinking about the Internet’s influence on society.   Gore’s thesis is that the internet is valuable to society because it furthers multi-party communication.   The previous dominant media for public discussion were television and major print publications.   Both are one-way; a very few people, all belonging to a certain class, are anointed to spread their view of what is true and important to the masses.   Those unwashed masses are unable to communicate so easily, either with each other or upwards.   The result is a discourse that resembles feudalism, where the Lords and Ladies tell the people what said Lords and Ladies feel the people should know — and exclude knowledge that would harm said Lords and Ladies as a whole.

Power tends to minimize and ridicule positions they find dangerous; note how much Dennis Kucinich is mocked for “crazy ideas” that actually find vast public support in polling.     The point is to make folks being exploited or controlled feel alone: if someone is angry about an issue, but thinks they’re alone in their anger, they’re less likely to take action than if they knew that millions of others are angry, too.   Marx calls this “class consciousness” specifically within the economic sphere; Habermas — upon whom Gore relies a great deal — calls it “the public sphere”.

Since the advent of the neutral Internet, governments and regimes are having a much harder time keeping their shenanigans out of public view.   Companies and governments have had to grow responsible and accountable to storms of rage on the internet, where before quick coverups would do.   The Consumerist produces a prodigious amount of content out of publicly shaming companies with poor customer service into doing right by their customers.   Airlines feel it when people hit Twitter when they’re being held on the tarmac; Oprah felt it when she tried, to her fans’ ire, to brush aside the fact that she’d selected a faked memoir for her Book Club.   And, of course, Wikileaks‘s recent Afghanistan disclosures tore the covers off an often neglected war in a way that parallels the Pentagon Papers.   Gore believes that as the salary, station in life, and therefore viewpoint of most national media journalists has grown to more closely match those in power than an average citizen, the traditional top-down media have lost their teeth and watchdog role.   Thus it’s Wikileaks, not the Washington Post, that has delivered the Afghan War’s Pentagon Papers.   In a very short time, the internet itself has become the public sphere.   Net neutrality threatens to bring all that under central control, and thus squash it out.   Elites are very effective at quashing dissent and openness when given proper tools and a quiet room to work in.

However, extremist and terrorists of various stripes have laptops, too.   Their information can waft through the Internet’s flotsam undetected and alone.   Far flung extremist groups can connect up and find common cause on the unprotected internet.   Net neutrality means you must accept all traffic as it comes, and route it as it wishes.   Even if net neutrality legislation explicitly calls out exceptions for the purposes of law enforcement and security, the fundamental design of a neutral network would probably make such enforcement impossible.   So Al Qaeda can use a neutral network more easily to send encrypted communications and instructions worldwide; neo-Nazi groups can use it to find each other and share data on how to organize and further their agendas.   Thus far, these groups have proven to be rather un-savvy with computer technology and encryption, but surely that won’t last forever.   Also, the assumption that an active public sphere with wide public participation necessarily will lead to good outcomes isn’t necessarily true.   The neutral network is surely a necessarily ingredient to the Tea Party movement, after all.

So the question of net neutrality is a choice, between a more top-down, controlled, stable and safer world where a small group of people can shape and limit the public sphere to their liking, or a more turbulent, subversive and open world, where anyone can transfer data anywhere, be it information that brings down an oppressive or corrupt government, or information that brings down two very large buildings in the middle of Manhattan.

And you’re saying that topic lacks depth?