Tuesday, July 15, 2014

EFF lies about NetNeutrality

The EFF has completely and thoroughly repudiated JP Barlow's "Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace", such as in this tweet:

This tweet is lie. Congress can't "kill Net Neutrality" because Net Neutrality doesn't currently exist. Net Neutrality proponents don't want to maintain the status quo, but radically change the Internet, converting it from the private network it is now into a public utility, regulated by the government.

What the left-wing populists tell you about Net Neutrality is a lie. Corporations aren't doing the evil things they claim. There is no technical idea behind it like "end-to-end". Net Neutrality is just the political belief that corporations are inherently evil and that the government must run the Internet.

Internet "fast lanes" are not a bad thing. They already exist, and the Internet can't function without them. Sniff your home traffic and then traceroute every IP address your system communicates with. You'll find that 90% of you home traffic goes to a server in your local city. That's because most websites use a fast lane to the "content delivery network" ("CDN") like Akamai, or a private CDN by Google, Apple, or Facebook. No company with a major web presence can compete unless they, too, pay for a fast lane.

Such fast lanes are the way the Internet has to work. We imagine that I can setup my own website at home and the entire world can access it (in an end-to-end fashion), but Internet backbone simply cannot handle the traffic. Netflix alone requires thousands of times more bandwidth than the Internet backbone can provide without using fast lanes. That's the difference between "broadcast" television where a million people can watch the same stream, and "unicast" video where everyone watches their own custom stream.

This dispute between Comcast and Netflix is not what they claim. Netflix already pays for a fast lane by putting servers in every city, because it wouldn't work otherwise. The only question is how, within each city, the traffic streams from Netflix's servers to Comcast's network.

And even then that's still not the key question. Netflix now pays Comcast for a faster lane, putting their servers directly on the Comcast network. Yet, during peak hours (8pm to 10pm), the system still slows down dramatically to under 3-mbps (where I live). That's because Comcast's urban network still can't handle the bandwidth. For Netflix to truly work, either Comcast will have to put more fiber in the ground to spread the streams around, or Netflix will have to spread their servers around the city.

Either way, it's Netflix's customers that should have to pay for the upgrade. Comcast's network works fine for the 90% of customers who don't stream lots of Netflix videos. It's only Netflix customers who have the problem. Forcing Comcast to upgrade their network to support Netflix means forcing the majority of low-bandwidth customers to subsidize the high-bandwidth customers. This is inherently unfair. I'm a Netflix binge watcher, and I appreciate that my viewing has been subsidized, but I still find it unfair. The only fair solution is for Netflix's customers to pay for Comcast's build-out.

Net Neutrality proponents claim that American broadband is the slowest and most expensive in the world. Of course it is. American cities are spread out. Our commute distances are twice that of European cities. The greater the suburban sprawl, the more expensive the Internet service. My city has less than 10% the population density of Paris, of course Comcast broadband is going to cost more here. American's pay a lot more to commute to work, they should pay a lot more for broadband.

Comcast is a monopoly in my city. Only Comcast provides more than 6-mbps for home service (my service is 75-mbps). However, the fault is government regulators. They won't allow another company to come in and lay a fiber optic network unless that company agrees to lay fiber everywhere -- even the poor areas of town. That's why Google could afford to put fiber in places like Kansas City, because the city council agreed that Google only had to lay fiber in neighborhoods that would pay for the service. The answer to Comcast monopoly practices is less regulation, not more. If you want companies to provide high-speed broadband to poor neighborhoods to solve the digital divide, then it's something you should pay for, rather than forcing Comcast's potential competitors into paying for it. Companies don't operate at a loss -- when you force them to, they simply choose to not operate at all.

Net Neutrality is just left-wing populism run amok, playing on your fears in order to convert the private Internet into a government-regulated public utility like water, gas, and electricity. This won't "save" the Internet as they promise, but kill all innovation. Of course, if you are a left-winger, this is something you'll want, and nothing I can say can convince you otherwise. But it's something that libertarians and right-wingers will oppose.


Anonymous said...

I really appreciate this post, I think you make an interesting and powerful argument that I hadn't considered previously.

That being said, I really wished you hadn't ended with this part: "Of course, if you are a left-winger, this is something you'll want, and nothing I can say can convince you otherwise. But it's something that libertarians and right-wingers will oppose."

As someone who self-identifies as a left-winger, stopping innovation isn't something I want or desire. This just felt like an ugly ad hominem attack at the end of something that was otherwise actually valuable to the conversation (which is rare to find these days).

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hushedfeet said...

Of course, what should also be mentioned is that all Comcast users have the potential to benefit from the extension of bandwidth capacity to their premises.

There is already tiered pricing within the Comcast subscriber ecosystem.

When I pay for a premium bandwidth package, I don't believe that the average joe should expect it to be qualified by where their traffic is coming from/going to. They expect Comcast to handle those logistics for them (this is the service they pay for, isn't it?).

If I wanted to pay to run my own fiber to my house, I would. Instead, I subscribe to a service that claims capacity to deliver me services of a particular grade.

One could argue that the real problem here is oversubscription on the part of Comcast, and that their inability to deliver the advertised bandwidth to their customers is an internal engineering problem that hasn't anything to do with Netflix whatsoever.

vanja said...

Few comments and questions:

- I am fine with paying premium rates for premium internet service. If my ISP sells me 1 gigabit/second, then I want that bandwidth available to any service I use. I understand that once the traffic leaves my ISP's network, they can't guarantee that bandwidth any more, but if they can't guarantee it within their own network, they shouldn't be advertising it and selling it. They could instead charge more at peak hours, or give me a monthly limit, but neither of those should depend on what service I'm using.

- The status quo has already changed. ISPs didn't used to discriminate by service, maybe because of the fear of extra regulation. After winning a few cases, they now do.

- "Fast lanes" and local servers are different things. Companies pay for local servers, from which they can provide any service they wish, to any local user. They can prioritize as they wish, and they don't have to negotiate every new service with all local ISPs. With fast lanes, they might have to.

- What other regulations would you remove to increase competition among ISPs? I think net neutrality would be a non issue if we had that competition, but I'm not sure how to get it. Without thinking through the consequences too much, I don't think that infrastructure (cables/fiber) providers should also be carriers. Especially because the cables are laid on public property with the help of subsidies.

Unknown said...

Wow. I may have just heard the strongest argument regarding an opposing viewpoint. Very well said. You have shook the foundation I thought I was standing on. Thanks for your perspective.

Rik van Riel said...

Considering that Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T used their rights as a regulated utility under Title II to cheaply lay down the infrastructure means it makes sense to treat that infrastructure as belonging to a regulated utility.

The overall goal is to maximize competition and consumer choice, which leaves two alternatives. Either payments between video and bandwidth providers can become common place, and any company should be allowed to put wires in the ground and provide connectivity to customers, or all the content providers need to be able to compete on an equal footing on top of the one set of existing wires.

The latter does not necessarily require net neutrality, but monopoly abuse must be prevented in order to ensure competition. One way to achieve that is to only allow a bandwidth provider to charge a content provider when that bandwidth provider is not a competitor. Eg. Comcast-the-ISP would only be allowed to charge Netflix if Comcast-the-content-provider was a separate company. Full separation between the content providers and the bandwidth providers would result in anyone being able to sell cable TV services to end users, in other words maximum consumer choice and maximum competition.

Wheaties said...

I think you are encompassing a small piece of what net neutrality is and trying to bastardize it for only that. Even though its hard to picture what the internet will look years from now I do think it is completely unfare for a private company to get so big and be able to shape what we now call a public domain. I'm not asking for the internet to be run by government but just asking it to be protected from corporate america.

Unknown said...

Your comments regarding "internet fast lanes" present a straw man. Nobody is against CDNs. Nobody is against having to pay boatloads of money to make it fast for everyone to download your stuff. Of course we need that.

What I *am* against, is when those CDNs (and now effectively ISPs) discriminate against content and content providers. A CDN should be the same price per storage+bandwidth whether it's a Netflix or an independent podcast producer. If an independent podcast producer used the exact same amount of storage and bandwidth in the exact same locations as Netflix, they should pay the same amount of money. CDNs should not be able to make special deals with Netflix so that Netflix is fast at a cheaper price and X-Podcast-Producer has to pay more for the same thing.

Regarding Comcast's urban network needing to be upgraded to handle Netflix traffic: The solution is *not* to subsidize it by charging Netflix, it's to subsidize it by charging the ISP's customers for the bandwidth that they use. If the ISP subsidizes by charging Netflix, then the people who download movies illegally over bittorrent are being subsidized by Netflix customers. Is that fair? Wouldn't it be better for Netflix customers who use a lot of bandwidth to pay more, and torrenters who use a lot of bandwidth to pay more, and people who only browse the web to pay less?

Robert Graham said...

That CDNs=fast-lanes is not a strawman, it's reality. This idea of "having to pay boatloads of money" that is the strawman.

CDNs do not discriminate against content providers. That's a hypothetical and a strawman.

ISPs like Comcast can't charge customers for the bandwidth they use, because that's not how customers want to pay for things.

Unknown said...

Actually I am a left winger and you did convince me.

Unknown said...
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Gary Horn said...

It's helpful to read the views of a a technical person who understands how the Internet actually moves traffic. Thanks.

Simon said...

Great post about the lies of EFF and the illiterate medias about Net Neutrality !

Jeremy Stretch said...

Service providers peer with content delivery networks because it's mutually beneficial: The CDNs get "local" access to customers and the ISPs get a cheap way to offload customer traffic before it hits their backhaul infrastructure. For example, if you find that 5% of your traffic burden on average is to and from Akamai networks, you'll obviously prefer to peer with them at no cost (other than the physical connectivity) to avoid paying for that traffic to consume paid transit. This is how the Internet works in general: peer when you can, pay when you must.

This would work just as well for Netflix as it does companies like Akamai, except that it happens to compete directly with many Internet service providers. Why would ISPs like Comcast agree to peer at no cost with Netflix, allowing them to deliver a product that might lead many customers to discontinue their Comcast TV service?

This is where we find the crux of the argument: Comcast and others are beginning to demand payment for connectivity from competing content providers for what has historically been settlement-free peering. Obviously, the only way to reach Comcast's millions of customers is through Comcast's network, and they've leveraged this fact in order to draw payment from competitors. Netflix can either give in to the Comcast's demands (which it has), or pay for transit to Comcast via a third party provider (which is likely going to be far more expensive).

While there is certainly some legitimacy in the argument that HD streaming services like Netflix place significant burden on ISP infrastructure, the ISPs really have no one but themselves to blame. When you advertise an Internet connection as having 100 Mbps downstream, well, customers expect 100 Mbps downstream. This isn't quite a fair position for the ISP: *Every* network is oversubscribed to some degree. But the ISPs (with the exception of Verizon's FiOS) have been lethargic toward investing in their own infrastructure over the years, a lack of motivation stemming on the cable companies' part from a decades-old position as a regional monopoly. Now it's starting to bite them in the ass, and they want a way to pass on those costs.

Unknown said...

Quite simply, Comcast, TW... have a conflict of interest. They are playing Web Content provider and delivery system at the same time. The ability to leverage their position to shut out competition should be obvious to anyone. That combined with their regional monopolies makes it impossible for it to be a dynamic, consumer friendly market. Tsk, Tsk on you for trying to push flying ponies and rainbows hogwash.