net neutrality, forever and ever

Well, the FCC has announced its net neutrality guidelines, which means it’s time for those with institutional or philosophical obligations to oppose net neutrality to express some disappointment and/or outrage.  This process will reach its apotheosis in a day or two, when the sysadmin familiars are summoned to spin some exotic technical fables about neutrality regulation sending the internet and Western civilization spiraling toward jitter-mediated destruction.  Then they will be rebutted, then they will respond, then they will be re-rebutted — at this point we’ll be talking about something entirely different than what we meant to discuss — and they’ll proceed to cudgel their interlocutors with references to network RFCs that can only be viewed if you have a key to the CERN sub-basement.  At that point we’ll all drop it until the next time the FCC holds forth.

But for now my combatants are far more  reasonable, and pleasant, and include my friend Julian Sanchez, who  starts things off with this post over at Cato (full disclosure: I still have some comic books that I need to return to him).  But bristling at today’s announcement is  a surprisingly hard job, and I’m not completely convinced that Julian’s heart is in it. It’s not that he doesn’t have the strength of his convictions; it’s just that the FCC said very little today, and even less that’s plausibly objectionable.  Arguing against transparency is tough, and the only other new guideline remains too vague to really engage with.

But Julian does his duty:

[T]hey’ll do their best to flesh out the definition of “reasonable,” but in general they’ll “evaluate alleged violations…on a case-by-case basis.” Insofar as any more rigid rule would probably be obsolete before the ink dried, I guess that’s somewhat reassuring, but it absolutely reeks of the sort of ad hoc “I know it when I see it” standard that leaves telecoms wondering whether some innovative practice will bring down the Wrath of Comms only after resources have been sunk into rolling it out.

I read this and see just the opposite: the FCC is essentially saying that if ISP, Inc. is interested in undertaking some network monkey business, it would behoove them to get on the phone with Washington before they get on the phone with Cisco.  This is a burden, I suppose, but network-wide changes are a big enough deal and pursued at a sufficiently careful pace that I don’t think it’s likely to be a particularly onerous one.

To my mind the alternative is for the ISPs to roll out an expensive network upgrade, then say “Whoops!” when the FCC comes calling — they’ll have some plausible excuse why they can’t go back, and perhaps they could just pay a fine or better yet be grandfathered in instead?

Julian would rather wait and see what happens.  I feel as though we’ve seen enough — and heard enough executives saying very stupid things about what they’re owed by their customers and online businesses — that adding some clarity to the regulatory situation is probably worthwhile.

I think that this is ultimately a cultural difference, though.  It’s just as in Tim‘s net neutrality paper – which is well worth a read, incidentally.  At the risk of boiling it down to an insultingly oversimplified nut, he’s generally skeptical of regulation and generally optimistic about the market’s capacity for providing incentives for being non-evil.  He makes a good case, but ultimately I don’t find it convincing; just as I’m sure he doesn’t find convincing my complementarily chipper attitude toward regulation and somber concern about looming corporate malfeasance.

What I am relatively sure of, though, is that everyone is overstating what’s at stake.  “Innovation” is unlikely to be hampered — small, agile ISPs typically sell themselves by virtue of their openness (see Speakeasy), and the lumbering behemoths still have a profit motive to push them toward clever new ways of overselling a given pipe*.  Similarly, there’s something to Tim’s argument that network discrimination is unlikely to be lucrative — for now, at least, it’s hard to imagine many companies playing ball with an ISP’s extortionary tactics so long as online video remains a money-losing enterprise.

Anyway, if you really want a properly impassioned response to this FCC business, I recommend Jim Harper’s post.  He points out that consumer pressure means that no ISP would be able to, say, interfere with bittorrent for long; that utility deregulation is an obviously great idea; and that in a net-neutral world, interacting with your ISP might become more like your dealings with the water company and less, well, Comcastic**. That last one is meant as a criticism, apparently.

More seriously, though, I will say that I’m encouraged to find that this debate has advanced beyond the stage where people are constantly saying dumb or dishonest things.  Proponents no longer picture Rosa Parks whenever they hear about subjecting packets to Quality of Service measures; opponents have mostly given up pretending that the FCC is likely to enact rules so transparently stupid that they’d bring the internet to a grinding halt.  Now it’s just about the level of philosophical gloominess you’re naturally predisposed to feel toward government intervention.  I doubt that the conversation will head anywhere productive from here, but at least we’ve been here before — it’s unlikely to be particularly infuriating.

* Besides which, we already know the bounds of what can ever be wrung out of a connection thanks to Claude Shannon.  Practical improvements are possible! But this shouldn’t be thought of as a field of inquiry that’s amenable to bold, game-changing breakthroughs if only the heavy hand of government is kept at bay.

** Becks told a story about seeing someone at the gym wearing a t-shirt identifying herself as a part of Comcast’s support staff.  “That’s like wearing a confederate flag t-shirt,” was her quip, which sounded about right to me.

Over Twitter, Julian says this, which I think is a much better criticism:

I’d b comfier w/ #netneutrality if seemed boosters were thinking as much about incentive effects of specific rules as gen value of openness

This is fair. You do occasionally see some thoughtless hippie nonsense coming from neutrality-boosters.  But actually, changing incentives is exactly why I support this stuff.  I want my ISP options to compete on price, reliability, speed and nothing else.  I’m not interested in continuing to pay for the clever MBA who had all those “SpeedBoost” posters printed up.

Nor do I think that synergistic cross-subsidization schemes are likely to be helpful to the public.  The example that tends to come to mind is those “you can only use Visa at the Olympics” ads.  I guess we’re supposed to think that the Olympics have only bothered to support the best or most important card.  Or maybe that Visa’s exclusive arrangement means that they’re going to make ticket-buying easier by paying for some more kiosks that wouldn’t be affordable in an open market? Whatever.  In reality the setup is almost certainly this: Visa has taken some money from me and merchants I do business with in order to make life slightly less convenient for people attending the Olympics, then taken a bunch more money and spent it on telling me all about this bold innovation.  Because they’d rather do this than be forced to compete by offering more favorable terms on their lending.

That’s the sort of innovation I expect to see if we allow inventively-tiered pricing and partnerships.  It’s an unfortunately blunt mechanism, but if regulation is what it takes to convince Verizon that it’s selling a commodity, that’s fine by me.  The market that’s going to grow up on top of that system is more important than the principle of avoiding any imposition on the ISPs.  Put another way: it may be that the drab, regulated water system has cheated me of consumer-facing innovations like leased rootbeer faucets, or additives that would save me from cleaning the tub as often.  But I don’t care about that: those gimmicks — any water utility gimmicks — are of miniscule importance compared to having a water system that works safely, predictably and efficiently.  If Comcast needs to become a more boring place to work and a slightly less exciting business than it otherwise might be, it’s not going to bother me even a little bit.

3 Responses to “net neutrality, forever and ever”

  1. Net Neutrality and the Architecture Avoidance Doctrine

    […] My friend Tom Lee from Sunlight Foundation (confusingly distinct from colleague Tim Lee!) has some characteristically smart things to say, and suggests that while disagreement is bound to persist, arguments in this space appear to […]

  2. Net Neutrality and Architecture Avoidance — Technology Liberation Front

    […] My friend Tom Lee from Sunlight Foundation (confusingly distinct from colleague Tim Lee!) has some characteristically smart things to say, and suggests that while disagreement is bound to persist, arguments in this space appear to […]

  3. dm

    small, agile ISPs typically sell themselves by virtue of their openness (see Speakeasy)

    Indeed so! However, doesn’t Speakeasy thrive at the sufference of ISPs like Verizon, who have to give them access to their wires and last-mile bandwidth (thanks, I imagine, to regulation)? A regulation I am grateful for.

    I suspect that Speakeasy would find thriving a bit harder if Verizon decided to treat their packets a little less neutrally. But perhaps I’m preaching to the choir. Or slip that in a note along with those comic books.

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