“Net Neutrality” does not mean “equally fast, everywhere”

“Net Neutrality” means too many different things to different people.

For example, concerns about the potential for discriminatory practices by ISPs or telcos based on content, application, or identities or affiliations of content consumers or producers are usually conflated with simplistic observations about the need for ‘equal speed’ being a necessary condition for net neutrality.

Al Franken discusses issues and concerns related to competition (or sufficient lack thereof), but he too raises the ‘speed equality’ notion as a requirement for ‘free speech’ on the internet.

It is safe to say that 99% or more of the public does not understand how the Internet works, or for that matter how computers attached to the Internet work. Discussing legitimate concerns about non-discriminatory processing of Internet traffic in simple terms of speed only further confuses the public, and create political responses for the wrong reasons.

What we all agree on is NOT the issue

What is not to be tolerated in any scenario, ‘network neutrality’ or not, is discrimination based on type of protocol, or content, or application, or content provider, or consumer.

It is this type of discrimination which has vociferous proponents of ‘net neutrality’ most up in arms, and yet it is not the type of discrimination that is likely to ultimately be the real net neutrality issue, for the simple reason that it is and will be easy for everyone to agree that those forms of discrimination are inappropriate, anti-competitive, and, yes, illegal.

The Need for Speed

Unfortunately, it is “speed” discrimination on which simplistic overtures to net neutrality are based.

For example, the following from the recent op-ed  by Al Franken on the subject:

An e-mail from your mom comes in just as fast as a bill notification from your bank. You’re reading this op-ed online; it’ll load just as fast as a blog post criticizing it. That’s what we mean by net neutrality.”

This definition of ‘net neutrality’ — that every interaction is “just as fast” as any other, is the most dangerously misleading of all attempts to define (and, in Senator Franken’s case, legislate) ‘net neutrality’.

If, by his comments, Senator Franken means to say that “the rate at which bytes are transmitted over the network, for consumers sharing the same level of cost for the same level of quality of service, should be the same”, then yes — (that is, definition #3 of ‘net neutrality’) — and is perfectly reasonable.

But the imprecise language of the appeal to ‘equally fast’ will incorrectly lead people to believe that net neutrality is intended to make the time it takes to download Avatar equal to the amount of time it takes to send a tweet, with the further stipulation that this be via terrestrial or wireless connections, and all for the same cost as the least demanding of levels of service.

Where “Net Neutrality” really applies is in the requirement to not discriminate based on content. This includes, of course, any selective slowing down of traffic based on application or protocol from sources who have paid the same for the same bandwidth. Local ISPs (notably cable companies with their claims of 5MB/sec and more bandwidth) need to be able to support those promises, or else not promise so much — truth in advertising, quite simply.

The “15 Facts” infographic

ReadWriteWeb has posted an ‘infographic’ entitled “15 Facts About Net Neutrality“.

The 15-point summary covers ‘bullet points’, but does not provide sufficient insight into the not-so-obvious distinctions among definitions of ‘net neutrality’.

In particular, the ‘3 definitions of net neutrality’ makes a stab at this, but more attention needs to be focused on specifically and exactly what is being talked about when different folks debate ‘net neutrality’.

To recap, the ‘3 definitions of Net Neutrality’ provided by the Online MBA Programs folks are:

1. Absolute non-discrimination:

No regard for quality of service considerations

2. Limited discrimination without QoS tiering

Quality of service discrimination allowed as long as no special fee is charged for higher quality service

3. Limited discrimination and tiering

Higher fees for quality of service provided there is no exclusivity in contracts

The definitional hole in the above summary points is simply: what is the domain potentially being discriminated? Is it content type ? application ? protocol type ? bandwidth ? consumer ? content provider ?

Definition 1 is, for the most part, the hue and cry of the status-quo, and is bound to run into trouble with consumers at some point.

This will occur when the volume of internet traffic of a (growing) minority of highly active internet consumers reaches thresholds where it taxes the bandwidth and capacity of Internet service to the point that a majority of less-active consumers are noticeably and negatively affected.

For example, when a sufficient volume of constant bit torrent traffic — or a sufficient increase in the amount of video-on-demand being streamed — reaches a level where local delivery is saturated or visibly impacted, consumers will notice (and ISPs and telcos will seek to maximize the number of satisfied, paying customers). This is what started the whole issue, after all !

Definition 2 would appear to be the worst of all worlds. “no special fee … charged for higher quality service” would of course never occur in a bandwidth-challenged network. Quite the opposite – that definition is absolutely equivalent to: “same fee charged for poorer quality service” ! It would let ISPs degrade service (or simply let service degrade on its own). This is the least desirable scenario.

Definition 3, which acknowledges that higher quality of service (translation: continuously available higher bandwidth) is something which consumes more of the capital infrastructure resources of the supply chain (ISP and backbone) — and for which a higher cost is appropriate — would seem to be a reasonable starting point for network neutrality that guarantees equal access within a given quality of service.

Unfortunately, this definition is one which is also drawing considerable flak over the concern that it will create two classes of internet users: “rich” and “poor”, or “fast lanes” and “slow lanes”  (See the transcript of Cali Lewis’ interview on CNN, for example).

Until the language and conversation regarding ‘net neutrality’ is cleaned up and made more precise, the controversy will continue to swirl unproductively. And can you imagine the provisions or effect that Congressional legislation — in the absence of such specificity, and in the presence of such fuzzy emotional appeals — will have ? It certainly will not have the desired effect !

If, for example, a clumsy, and poorly thought-out, knee-jerk legislative reaction results — one which is too restrictive or onerous — then the result could be one where growth and competition to provide higher bandwidth service is replaced by a strategy on the part of ISPs and telcos to simply start charging more by the data byte with minimal investment in technical infrastructure. This outcome would ultimately cost all consumers more, and for less service !

Is Internet capacity a “non-issue”, and equal bandwidth a “right” ?

Interviewed by Max Kellerman, on Rick's List, CNN, August 20

Here is the link on CNN to the 5-minute segment: Cali Lewis / Max Kellerman discuss Net Neutrality

A transcript of the interview follows.  After watching the discussion with some interest, I tweeted Cali with a brief comment that she had made a statement about technology and capacity which was misleading and very much in error.  I later received a reply from her producer, Dave Curlee:

remember that CNN has a VERY broad audience. Network TV doesn’t like technical detail… keep it simple…..

…. Net Neutrality is a HUGE subject. a 5min segment can’t do more than ‘maybe’ give a 50k foot view.

Dave is quite correct, of course.  However, the fact that network TV “doesn’t like technical detail” is not a sufficient reason to gloss over certain aspects of technical realities in a manner that is fundamentally incorrect.

Now, I quite like Cali’s engaging style and friendly charm, and I can see why she is understandably popular as a source of information about technology, in particular to an audience who may not be all that technically literate.  But the “Net Neutrality” issue is quite pivotal, and the role of “translator” of the issue quite important as well.

The Net Neutrality issue has economic, technical and social dimensions. Cali does a good job in addressing the social aspect of the issue, but, unfortunately, the technical dimension was not as well served.

Reading the transcript will no doubt reveal where some of the oversimplified (and misleading) technical statements are made.  I am posting the transcript now without comment or analysis, choosing to follow up with that after presenting the interesting and revealing interview first.

I trust that Cali will understand that my desire to engage her on some of her statements is a constructive effort to improve and advance the dialog and understanding of this important issue, and I salute her for being willing to step up and discuss the topic live on air.

Transcript of the interview

MK: Explain what we are talking about here … “net neutrality”

CL:  It is a heated topic, as you saw from the clip, everybody gets really up in arms about it, so … “net neutrality” says that carriers treat all Internet traffic the same, um, when data is requested, it’s just sent out, it’s not sped up, it’s not slowed down, it’s just “sent”.  Now, there are certain companies that have, let’s say, special needs, but they have private networks, so it’s not being affected, or worked into the open Internet. Now…

MK:  OK, so why would changing the rules be so bad, you know, what would that change ?

CL:  Well, so what we’re talking about here is that the companies that own the fiber that we use to connect to the Internet, they’re wanting to be able to prioritize traffic, so essentially they’re wanting to take money from people who can afford it, which leaves the little guys out in the cold, and I’m sitting here thinking, this sounds a little bit like extortion to me.

MK:  Cali, I mean, in terms of the speed with which you get stuff and the payment for it, when you went from dialup service to high speed you had to pay more for high speed, and it got you the information faster — what’s the difference ?

CL:  Well, we’re not talking about an increase in , in technology here, we’re talking about prioritization of the Internet, and so it’s a totally different beast.  So the other side, the people who are against “net neutrality”, what they say is that the traffic is increasing exponentially, and we have a finite amount of capacity and something has to give somewhere somehow, and so that they have to be able to prioritize traffic.  Well, it’s just a flawed, um, fundamentally flawed argument — let’s take an example here, and I know it’s silly, but I brought a prop (laughing, holding up a 10base-T ethernet cable).  You know the ethernet cable, right ?

MK:  right

CL:  so, the ethernet cable, it went from, you know, 10 megabits to about a gigabits in about ten years, so …

MK:  so how many “megas” in a “giga” again ?

CL:  (laughing) a thousand ?

MK:  ok, so it’s a thousand times faster in ten years

CL:  ok, so …

MK:  a giga is a million … or a billion …

CL: (laughing)  right, right …  and so it went … (laughing) we don’t have to get into the math, right ?  And so it’s a huge amount of, um, of capacity that’s changed, and the actual cable has not changed …

MK:  so in other words it’s not about the hardware, it’s about the technology, and your argument is that the technology will catch up to demand in terms of the packets of information that are sent back and forth.  OK, here’s —

CL:  Exactly.  It’s about what happens on the ends, and there are companies that are working to make all of that work, and we don’t need to worry …

MK:  Let me ask you something — I understand as a consumer that I like the idea of “net neutrality”, right, because I want everything to be treated equally, I love this system that we have of the Internet where you can get information from anywhere, and it’s not prioritized, it’s wherever you want to go … on the other hand … it seems to me analogous in a way to software companies, when Bill Gates was a young man, and the culture which had come out of these software geeks was such that, you know, you just shared it and everything, and Bill Gates was saying “no no, wait a minute, I invested all this money in my software, you gotta pay for it, I’m not just sharing it with everybody” and [he] made a ton of money and reinvested that money and maybe sped up the development of software, one could argue.  So is your argument that the public utility should trump private interest, simply, in this case ?

CL:  Well you know the Internet is … this is really a philosophical question more than a technical question, or whether it’s ok for … we’re talking philosophically here, in what your question is proposing.  Is the Internet a right to everyone ? Is it important that equality is on the Internet ?  Is it important for people to be able to, you know, poor people to be able to drink the same clean water that rich people …

MK: Except that it’s like printing books, and the telephone, and the television — none of those things were “rights”, right ? Why is the Internet … In other words, this culture has grown up around us, so we’re used to it.  Who is to say that that necessarily means that it should stay that way ?  I’m trying to come up with the strongest devil’s advocate position that I can.

CL:  (grinning)  I know … and it’s going to be SO hard for you, because … (laughing) … the Internet is a “right” now, you know, it wasn’t … before the Internet existed it wasn’t a right, but it became available, and it is essentially a right at this point in time it is part of all of our lives.  It is world-wide communication that opens up so many possibilities. For example, my show [ geekbeat.tv ] was not possible before the Internet existed because everything was controlled by TV networks, radio, newspapers, but now I have the ability to communicate world-wide, and have a very large audience, um, but now we’re talking about the fact that CNN.com could pay more than me, and you know be able to kind of push me down, and, uh, it IS a “right” now …

MK:  Cali Lewis thank you, we’re running out of time, but thank you very much for your explanation here, I thank you for your time, thanks for coming on