Wednesday, March 30, 2011


My views on net-neutrality, I can see from the various draft posts I've got sitting around, have grown by accretion, and are far from finished.  While I'm certain that the lack of timely Anarcho-theist scripture has prevented most of you from meanwhile making effective use of the intertubes, it does not appear that this situation will be quickly remedied.  However, in lieu of a positive, final, stone tablet type set of open internet principles and prescriptions, I can, at minimum, identify those areas where I believe we are falling from grace.

Witness this bullshit:
Regulation is to the rescue. ISPs will not be allowed to block access to (legal) websites, or unreasonably discriminate in the way traffic flows. Customers choose. ISPs are open. The network is neutral. What's not to like?

On January 10 2011, we found out. MetroPCS, hit with its first formal complaint, is an upstart wireless network offering low prices and short-term contracts. As part of their $40 a month "all you can eat" voice, text and data plan, they slipped in a bonus: free, unlimited YouTube videos, customised to run fast and clear.

Activist groups, led by Free Press, went ballistic. Their petition to the FCC declared that the mobile provider was favouring YouTube over other video sites, creating just the sort of "walled garden" that would destroy the internet. "The new service plans offered by MetroPCS give a preview of the future in a world without adequate protections for mobile broadband users," they wrote.

The complaint performs a great public service, revealing just how net neutrality would "adequately protect mobile broadband users". In fact, MetroPCS advances the interests of consumers by supporting enhanced access to the applications most popular with users. Such arrangements do not sabotage internet development, but drive it.

MetroPCS possesses no market power. With 8m customers, it is the country's fifth largest mobile operator, less than one-tenth the size of Verizon. Under no theory could it force customers to patronise certain websites. It couldn't extract monopoly cash if it tried to.
This is precisely what you don't want to happen with net-neutrality regulation.  So precisely, in fact, that I wouldn't put it past AT&T to have lodged this complaint as part of a lobbying strategy meant to discredit the new FCC guidelines (remember, these boys are playing chess, not checkers).  

Saying that you can't discriminate against certain sites cannot mean that you cannot promote others.  While I realize that the competitive advantage tied to how fast a site loads is measured relative to others, this systemic effect of these two rules would be entirely different.  In the first case you are sticking cats in everyone else's tubes in order to make yours appear relatively faster, which results in the overall efficiency decreasing.  In the second case, someone is building a new, and admittedly private, tube.  This improves the system overall, though the benefits clearly accrue disproportionately to those doing the building.  To use an analogy, someone built a toll road alongside the crowded highway, though in this case, it appears that everyone is free to drive on the new road in exchange for watching a few more Youtube billboards sail past.

I do think that we need to have a serious debate about the long term effects of more internet traffic going over toll roads.  If investment were drawn exclusively to building these roads, it's hardly far-fetched to imagine the public arteries eventually reduced to pot-holed rubble.  In addition, having a decent public infrastructure could be important for maintaining competition over the long term -- if you need tons of cash and expertise to ship stuff around on the internet, this may favor those who already dominate the traffic in bits.  All things considered, I think it's very likely that we want to maintain some sort of quasi-public information highway, or at least to impose some sort of wholesale level regulation on this infrastructure if we decide to leave it private owned (and remember, leaving it privately owned has gotten us pretty far already -- it ain't public right now).

Unfortunately, however, our mechanism for building public infrastructure of any kind here in the US is entirely dysfunctional. While fixing this is a noble goal (PUBLIC FINANCING OF ELECTIONS! PUBLIC FINANCING OF ELECTIONS!) we can't let that hold us hostage and prevent us from achieving some of the same ends by other means.  We simply cannot afford to discourage investment in the internet while we wait for a perfect government.  

PS.  There are a million other issues that come up here, not the least being the relationship between my last statement and my view that the AT&T - T-Mobile merger is a disaster and should be prevented.  After all, AT&T has promised to invest in significantly more 4G buildout if the merger is approved.  And to use the Jimi Hendrix version of the national anthem as their hold music.  Do we really want to discourage that?

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