let’s get specific


Tim points out that Vint Cerf’s advocacy for network neutrality doesn’t mean that every venerable internet expert agrees with it.  True!  Google for “Dave Farber” or “Bob Kahn” and “net neutrality” and you’ll find plenty of articles… from 2007.

I think this debate has stagnated.  People are continuing to act as if the FCC’s plan is a complete unknown. This enables the lazy “evil corporation/incompetent government” frame that we all know and love. At one point this was at least semi-appropriate.  People — including those like Cerf, Farber and Kahn — made guesses about what was likely to happen, largely based on their own position along the regulation/markets ideological spectrum. “The government is trying to outlaw QoS!” “The ISPs are going to charge for Google!”  Both of these positions were hyperbolic.

But look, there’s a difference now: the FCC has announced its NN principles, to thundering… well, there hasn’t been much reaction, actually.  Everyone’s just pretending that nothing happened and sticking to their guns.  “The principles are too vague!” they cry, even though those principles say that allowances will be made for necessary network management, that throttling heavy users will be okay, that malware can be filtered, that copyright law can be enforced, and that managed services can be developed and sold.  That wipes out a significant swath of the ISPs’ objections.

Yet no one seems to have noticed. Here’s Farber responding to the new principles — he doesn’t particularly object to them, he just thinks they’re too vague and that they might make ISPs wary of trying to innovate (as if the research costs to network management are so great that the potential for work product to be shot down makes it impractical; please, this is software).  He also says they’ll lead to a bunch of lawsuits, though he simultaneously says we should instead rely on the DOJ and FTC to handle this (in a rule-free environment!), which makes just about no sense to me.

I digress.  Look: the FCC has put some of its cards on the table.  Not all!  Rulemaking still needs to occur (if it didn’t, opponents would be even more outraged).  But the agency has signaled that it’s not actually going to do the incredibly idiotic things that neutrality opponents claimed it would. Those people need to acknowledge this fact, and come up with a clarified set of objections. What is it, exactly, that the FCC’s stated plans are going to stop you from doing? Right now I’m just seeing a bunch of now-irrelevant FUD; some talk about how great a monopolistic IPTV market would be; and some hand-waving about “new business models”, which I take to be a synonym for “rent-seeking”.  It’s time to admit that the FCC isn’t the one being vague.

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Tom Lee

1 comment

  • Tom, there’s a big difference between, on the one hand, a law that broadly prohibits something and then enumerates narrow exceptions and, on the other hand, a law that limits itself to enumerating specific practices that are prohibited. If policymakers didn’t think of some useful “network management” practice in advance, the former approach presumptively bans it, while the latter presumptively allows it.

    You say Farber et al haven’t specified which “reasonable network management” practices need to be allowed, but that’s the whole point: we can’t predict in advance what kinds of network management practices might be beneficial. You say Farber “just” thinks the rules are too vague, but in my view that’s a compelling objection. Remember, the big debate of the late 1990s was over whether DSL and cable were “telecommunications services” or “information services.” Virtually everyone agrees that these terms were obsolete before the ink had dried on the ’96 telecom act, yet the telecom world spent a decade litigating about it anyway. The fact that Farber can’t pinpoint in advance which provisions of the FCC’s current rules will look comically outdated a decade hence doesn’t mean that some of them won’t.

    Also, you seem to be assuming that only existing companies will be bound by these rules. But that’s not a reasonable assumption. It’s not that hard to imagine some as-yet-unfounded company creating an innovative and beneficial wireless networking product with a novel business model that runs afoul of the letter of the FCC’s current network neutrality principles. I’m not expecting Verizon to come up with a “new business model” I’ll like. But I don’t think we should build into our regulatory framework an assumption that all network providers will be lethargic duopolists.

By Tom Lee