Monday, October 4, 2010

Net Neutrality: A Tangle of Ignorance

This is Tim Berners-Lee. He's the guy who actually invented the World Wide Web. And he's a proponent of Network Neutrality.


An old saying goes "Never argue with an idiot. He'll drag you down to his level and beat you with experience". When it comes to network neutrality, the issues involved have been dumbed-down into meaninglessness, and both sides have enlisted supporters whose support is based entirely on the ignorance of these one-liners- "soundbytes", if you will.

Rather than perpetuate hyperbole, let's break down the arguments into meaningful statements:

Contrary to popular (and incorrect) belief, the essential concept of net neutrality has very little to do with censorship. It has to do with quality of service. Censorship is a side issue which I will address below.

In essence, there are two ways to run an information network: Best effort networks, wherein a "best effort" is made to deliver data (much like the postal service), and guaranteed quality of service, wherein a customer is guaranteed delivery of data (essentially the way a telephone service works). The internet, in most cases, is a best effort system- with a very high success rate for delivery of data.

Net neutrality, as originally proposed, would prohibit internet service providers from maintaining tiered service, wherein lower-paying subscribers would continue to utilize a best effort system, and higher-paying subscribers would recieve guaranteed quality of service.

Most people with internet service have experienced data load issues: A network can only carry a certain amount of data at a time. During periods of peak usage (for example, weekday evenings), the service "runs slower" due to the greater data load; during periods of lower usage (for example, in the middle of the night), the service "runs faster".

Herein lies the rub: Net neutrality proponents argue that, if certain subscribers may purchase a guarantee of service, that the best effort customers will experience more slowdowns, or conversely, that without tiered service, every subscriber will have equal access to the limited bandwidth. On the other hand, net neutrality opponents argue that eliminating tiered service will stifle innovation- that, in order to experiment with (for example) new technologies and new delivery systems, experimenters need a guarantee of service for their experiments to work- and, incidentally, much of this research, as with most innovation of any sort- is motivated by the potential for profit.

Stated differently, net neutrality arguments center around the argument between free-market capitalism, or class-warfare socialism. On the one hand, the freedom of internet service provider businesses to sell their product in the manner they see fit, and the opportunity for profit-motivated research to yield innovation; on the other hand, the desire to legislate an "even playing field", primarily intended to benefit the poor, wherein one subscriber can't buy an advantage over another subscriber.

It should be obvious which side of the argument I favor.

Of course, the conversation surrounding this topic, by and large, doesn't actually discuss this core issue. It's a bit too technical for sound "bytes", so instead of meaningful discussion, the issue is couched in already-familiar rhetoric. Both sides of the aisle are guilty of this. The left side of the aisle claims that "everyone deserves equal access to the Internet", regarding the internet as analogous to a public utility- and in some cases, using this analogy to propose a welfare system for subsidizing internet access. And as with all socialist arguments, "equal access" means "equally-low-quality service", in the same way that socialist economic theories are simply routes to "equal opportunity poverty".

The right side of the aisle handily defeats this with an anti-welfare argument.

Civil libertarians- with a following on both sides of the aisle- have created a theory about the manipulation of internet content, and tied it into net neutrality- and raised an interesting point, and one which can't be solidly refuted.

The theory goes like this: An internet service provider essentially acts as a gatekeeper to the Internet. In this capacity, one must pay to pass through the gates, as it were. Theoretically, an ISP can use this role to manipulate content and/or control access to content.

In the grossest terms, this means that an ISP might block access to certain websites, either because of an ideological disagreement with a site's content (blocking access to a gun-rights website, for instance), or to stifle competition (blocking access to a competitor's website). They may also broker this ability- for example, accepting payment from a corporation to block its competitor's website.

In more subtle terms, an ISP might simply manipulate access- slowing access to one website, and speeding up access to another; or denying access to a website by feigning an error or a data load issue, thus giving the end user the erroneous impression that the website they want to view is "unavailable". As the theory goes, after several failed attempts to access the website, the end user would believe that the website in question is unreliable, and so the website, its owner, and its message and content lose credibility, and the end user would be ignorant to the fact that the ISP is responsible for this predicament.

The theory falls flat, however, with the assertion that "equal access" would prevent such abuses.

This type of manipulation raises valid concerns, and those concerns can't be satisfied by the opposition responses, namely 1) to dismiss this theory as absurd; 2) to argue that end users would be aware of this sort of subtle manipulation, and switch to another subscriber; 3) that the largely unregulated nature of the internet, which has been reason for its rapid growth, would be lost if we begin enacting major legislation to police it; and 4) that ISPs would only block access to illegal or "objectionable" (define that term for me) content, or block content or devices harmful to the network.

This censorship argument has, in effect, become the "new" net neutrality argument. Most commentators have established their "pro" or "con" stance on net neutrality based upon their "pro" or "con" stance on censorship in general, and not based on the original, and inextricable, core issue of quality of service. Understand that censorship is a side issue, and is NOT the central issue of the original net neutrality argument. It is, however, a topic worthy of consideration.

So, how do we reconcile a meritorious censorship argument, with a logical free-market argument against the core of net neutrality? How do we ensure the freedom of information, and also avoid eroding our own freedoms by creating new legislation? After all, if we establish a precedent for controlling ISPs, that precedent can be extended to internet users as well. How do we prevent media outlets from buying up "the rights to the Internet", as it were, and thereby monopolizing the flow of information? Finally, how do we give ISPs the ability to restrict access to internet content or devices which might actually harm their networks, without also giving ISPs the ability to control our content?

The answer is simple- so simple, in fact, that it is overlooked: We don't need to do anything. We already have laws which make it illegal to intentionally or recklessly damage or cause harm to property. We already have theft of services laws. We already have laws which illegalize fraud- when I access the internet, I have a reasonable expectation that I will be able to access content of my choosing, unfettered by the unscrupulous practices of my ISP. And we already have anti-trust laws, which prevent competition-stifling monopolies, and which would conceptually cover attempts to monopolize access to information.

In other words, rather than creating a new class of offenses and regulations, and in so doing create a new legislative precedent which can be used to interfere with the private use of the internet, simply extend the current legal structure to include equivalent offenses on the internet. This both provides the protections which anti-censorship advocates desire, and allows the free market to continue to function unhindered.

So there you go: Network neutrality, untangled.

Now that you're "in the know", you may try to ascertain for yourself the motives of those involved in this argument. Is a particular net neutrality proponent in favor of socializing internet access, or merely anti-censorship? Is a net neutrality opponent a laudable defender of free-market capitalism, or merely a misguided social conservative?

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