Polymath A (mostly) technical weblog for Archivale.com

April 22, 2010

Why I Don’t Worry About Net Neutrality

Filed under: Uncategorized — piolenc @ 6:30 am

…unless the FCC gets put in charge of it.

For those who’ve been living in a Faraday cage at the bottom of a salt mine for the last couple of years, Net Neutrality is the doctrine that demands that Internet traffic carriers give equal treatment to every packet that passes through their hands. The fear is that, if this doctrine is not enforced, carriers will discriminate against traffic that they consider low priority, such as filesharing or games. Or against Mom & Pop Web shops and in favor of eBay and Amazon. Or…<insert your greatest fear here>.

This controversy has been simmering for a while, but it has become the Alarme du Jour since Comcast won in court against the FCC’s attempt to force Comcast to stop discriminating against BitTorrent traffic. Comcast argued, rightly, that the FCC had no authority to give such an order, and now various Net pundits are urging a coercive solution—either giving the FCC the authority to decide how bandwidth is allocated, or directly legislating Net neutrality, or reclassifiying broadband Internet service as “common carrier” service, and thus subjecting it to FCC micromanagement. The prevailing opinion among the said pundits seems to be that Something Must Be Done quickly to ensure an “open Internet.”

But wouldn’t it be more sensible to watch what the market does about preferential bandwidth allocation? Assuming that Comcast resumes putting the brakes on Bittorrent traffic, the possible results are:

—enough Bittorrent users will become annoyed enough to use another carrier, or to insist that their ISP use one that does not discriminate against filesharers, or to downgrade to a cheaper category of service because they are not getting fair value from their high-bandwidth subscription. ComCast loses, not just the Bittorrent traffic of the departing users, but their favored traffic as well.

—Bittorrent users turn out to be such a small minority of Net users that nobody much cares what they like. Unfortunately for the discriminating carriers, this also means that they don’t recover much bandwidth, which means that they’re creating resentment among a small, but net-savvy and vocal, minority without getting any benefit in return.

—Bittorrent users begin to turn to services that camouflage their filesharing activities so that the carriers can’t detect—and therefore can’t inhibit or block—their Bittorrent traffic.

The Internet, like every other commercial service, is driven by money. The money comes essentially from two categories of sources: Internet users and Web site owners. The users are paying for access to one another (email) and to the Web sites and Net-based services that they like. The Web site owners are paying to be accessible to users. As long as both get what they want, the money continues to roll in. Start monkeying with access and bandwidth at either end, and that can change. ISPs and Web hosts, who are directly in contact with Net services consumers, have already felt the heat when they tried to discriminate against certain categories of use(1). The carriers are one echelon removed from the ISPs and Web hosts, who are essentially their retailers, but if enough retail customers get annoyed the wholesalers start to feel the heat.

Now suppose that a different fear comes true, and the big carriers start to favor high-traffic users, like Amazon and eBay, over the little Web folk. Obviously, if the interference becomes noticeable, the Web site owners are going to consider whether they are still getting fair value from the hosting fees that they pay, and their customers are going to wonder whether their subscription fees are being well spent. While it is certainly nice to have big vendor sites on the Web, I for one would consider the Web to be of little value if it contained ONLY eBay and Amazon, or if only those two were easily reachable. And if enough prospective customers drop out, that will begin to matter to the biggies as well. But long before the big Web site operators felt the pinch, the legions of nickel and dime disconnect, downgrade and switch decisions on the part of subscribers would have an effect. After all, the little folk may be small individually when compared with the likes of Amazon, but there are a lot more of them, and without their participation the Net will become much smaller…and much less profitable.

All in all, market forces would seem to favor an open Net, or at least one in which deviations from openness are small and generally tolerable.

But surely, having the government direct and enforce Net neutrality would clinch it, ensuring that each of us would continue to enjoy his favorite Net-based service, whatever it might be? If, like many of us, you see government as an essentially benign force, this may seem quite reasonable. But let’s consider specific scenarios to see why this might not be so.

– Worst case, the “nuclear option:” Congress decrees that broadband Internet service must be regulated as common carrier service. This essentially gives the FCC total power over broadband. “Hurray!” say the Net Neutrality advocates, “now they have to let our traffic through.” Well yes, they will have to, until the FCC becomes preoccupied with a different issue – SPAM, for instance – and decides to mandate discriminatory bandwidth allocation. Why not? Moving to cut bandwidth for “known SPAM sources” would look pretty good until it was implemented, and thousands of legitimate users were caught in the net. Remember when ISPs started implementing spam filters? Now multiply that by millions and imagine there is no escape and no appeal.

– Best case: Congress mandates Net neutrality without giving the FCC any discretion in definition or enforcement (assuming that is possible). Now every packet is the equal of every other packet, and all must be forwarded on a first come, first serve basis. Perfect, right? Unless of course something comes up which would make it very desirable to discriminate by source or type of traffic. Are you sure that kind of situation could never come up? I’m not.

All things considered, I think we should be far more frightened by the prospect of government management of bandwidth than by discriminatory decisions by individual players.


(1) The best that some have been able to manage—especially here in the Third World—is to inhibit the use of direct filesharing services like Rapidshare. They do this indirectly, by giving subscribers access through DHCP, which allocates the subscriber a dynamic, purely local IP address. The filesharing service sees only one IP address for all the ISP’s users, and as it won’t allow more than one free download at a time from a given IP address, this has the effect of enforcing limits on direct downloads, as only one of the ISP’s subscribers can be using a given filesharing service at any given time. Even here, though, file sharers are getting around restrictions by posting the same file to several services, so that if one service is “busy” the subscriber can download from another. None of this applies to Bittorrent or peer-to-peer traffic, which is diffuse and indirect.

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