Tuesday, May 09, 2017

John Oliver is wrong about Net Neutrality

People keep linking to John Oliver bits. We should stop doing this. This is comedy, but people are confused into thinking Oliver is engaging in rational political debate:

Enlightened people know that reasonable people disagree, that there's two sides to any debate. John Oliver's bit erodes that belief, making one side (your side) sound smart, and the other side sound unreasonable.

The #1 thing you should know about Net Neutrality is that reasonable people disagree. It doesn't mean they are right, only that they are reasonable. They aren't stupid. They aren't shills for the telcom lobby, or confused by the telcom lobby. Indeed, those opposed to Net Neutrality are the tech experts who know how packets are routed, whereas the supporters tend only to be lawyers, academics, and activists. If you think that the anti-NetNeutrality crowd is unreasonable, then you are in a dangerous filter bubble.

Most everything in John Oliver's piece is incorrect.

For example, he says that without Net Neutrality, Comcast can prefer original shows it produces, and slow down competing original shows by Netflix. This is silly: Comcast already does that, even with NetNeutrality rules.

Comcast owns NBC, which produces a lot of original shows. During prime time (8pm to 11pm), Comcast delivers those shows at 6-mbps to its customers, while Netflix is throttled to around 3-mbps. Because of this, Comcast original shows are seen at higher quality than Netflix shows.

Comcast can do this, even with NetNeutrality rules, because it separates its cables into "channels". One channel carries public Internet traffic, like Netflix. The other channels carry private Internet traffic, for broadcast TV shows and pay-per-view.

All NetNeutrality means is that if Comcast wants to give preference to its own contents/services, it has to do so using separate channels on the wire, rather than pushing everything over the same channel. This is a detail nobody tells you because NetNeutrality proponents aren't techies. They are lawyers and academics. They maximize moral outrage, while ignoring technical details.

Another example in Oliver's show is whether search engines like Google or the (hypothetical) Bing can pay to get faster access to customers. They already do that. The average distance a packet travels on the web is less than 100-miles. That's because the biggest companies (Google, Facebook, Netflix, etc.) pay to put servers in your city close to you. Smaller companies, such as search engine DuckDuckGo.com, also pay third-party companies like Akamai or Amazon Web Services to get closer to you. The smallest companies, however, get poor performance, being a thousand miles away.

You can test this out for yourself. Run a packet-sniffer on your home network for a week, then for each address, use mapping tools like ping and traceroute to figure out how far away things are.

The Oliver bit mentioned how Verizon banned Google Wallet. Again, technical details are important here. It had nothing to do with Net Neutrality issues blocking network packets, but only had to do with Verizon-branded phones blocking access to the encrypted enclave. You could use Google Wallet on unlocked phones you bought separately. Moreover, market forces won in the end, with Google Wallet (aka. Android Wallet) now the preferred wallet on their network. In other words, this incident shows that the "free market" fixes things in the long run without the heavy hand of government.

Oliver shows a piece where FCC chief Ajit Pai points out that Internet companies didn't do evil without Net Neutrality rules, and thus NetNeutrality rules were unneeded. Oliver claimed this was a "disingenuous" argument. No, it's not "disingenuous", it entirely the point of why Net Neutrality is bad. It's chasing theoretical possibility of abuse, not the real thing. Sure, Internet companies will occasionally go down misguided paths. If it's truly bad, customers will rebel. In some cases, it's not actually a bad thing, and will end up being a benefit to customers (e.g. throttling BitTorrent during primetime would benefit most BitTorrent users). It's the pro-NetNeutrality side that's being disingenuous, knowingly trumping up things as problems that really aren't.

The point is this. The argument here is a complicated one, between reasonable sides. For humor, John Oliver has created a one-sided debate that falls apart under any serious analysis. Those like the EFF should not mistake such humor for intelligent technical debate.


Typhoonandrew said...

As an additional criticism of J.O; I'd have preferred if he has said "go read about this and get educated about the deeper issues, then express your thoughts to the FCC".
As a counter thought, the issue might not be decided by intelligent technical debate either, but instead be decided behind closed doors. Trusting the market to adjust properly is risky, so I support getting a lot of people to create pressure on the people making these choices. That way the company owners, the techies, and the wider public (if they seek to care) can give input. JO's presentation certainly did raise some awareness.

kazarnowicz said...

Thank you, I learned something, and you changed my mind a bit (or at least nuanced the debate). I say "a bit" because "customers will rebel" would be true if they had choices, which a lot of Americans don't. Still, this is a post worth reading for everyone interested in Net Neutrality.

Unknown said...

When I buy internet access from comcast, they do not advertise what services they do or do not purposely throttle. As a customer who pays for access to the internet, this is fraud. Actually would have no problem with non neutrality as long as 2 conditions are met. 1. There is public disclosure about the sites which receive preferential or non preferential treatment, and 2. There was a free market beyond the 1 or 2 big telcos so I actually had a choice of the ISP that suits my budget and needs. Hard to take a free market argument from an industry dominated by regional monopolies, many of which are protected by govt regulations at the state and local levels specifically enacted to maintain their market share.

Kevin said...

A couple other commenters pointed out that local and state governments bolster the monopoly positions of incumbent telcos and cable companies. Let's not forget that the FCC itself still reserves huge chunks of prime spectrum for broadcast TV, even in rural areas where there are few if any broadcasts available and that spectrum could deliver fairly high speed (LTE or better) over-the-horizon wireless broadband.

Kevin Dangoor said...

"Comcast can prefer original shows it produces, and slow down competing original shows by Netflix. This is silly: Comcast already does that, even with NetNeutrality rules."

I disagree with this characterization. I do not pay for cable TV service from Comcast. I pay only for Comcast internet service. I do not want Comcast to start throttling Netflix or "boosting" their own shows on the internet service that I am paying for. I want my internet service to be a pipe through which I can send and receive whatever kind of traffic I please at the rates for which I am paying.

Net Neutrality is not about "neutrality between completely different services" it's about providing internet service as a utility where I control how packets are prioritized.

Unknown said...

The primary purpose of regulating this behavior, or any behavior, isn't strictly a technical exercise though. Ultimately the question is whether companies should be allowed to preferentially throttle access (or at the very least as other commenters have pointed out should they be forced to disclose such activity)?

How they're accomplishing that, technically, is secondary to any debate of whether they should be allowed to do it.

Even being said: Aren't the technical details you state here helping make Oliver's point, that ISP's are already guilty of the behavior Net Neutrality laws would intend to limit or stop if you believe this should be regulated?

orev said...

It's really shocking how wrong you are on this issue.

Firstly, it's not only "lawyers, academics, and activists" who support Net Neutrality. That kind of broad statement pretty much invalidates the rest of your post due to being so generalized. ANY time you make a broad generalization like that, you're pretty much guaranteed to be wrong. If you have some evidence that "all tech people" are anti-net-neutrality, then present it. Otherwise don't dare try to speak for other people (and I would bet that you're completely wrong on that assertion anyway).

Next, you go into a silly argument where you try to equate Internet service with TV service. When people buy Internet service from a cable company, they're buying access to the INTERNET, the globally connected network of all other networks. That is by far not the same thing as connecting to a private internal network that the ISP runs. That they are delivered over the same wire at a technical level is completely irrelevant. Whatever technology the TV company uses to deliver their private service to their private customers is irrelevant. A "cable" connection is not even close to the same thing as an "Internet" connection, because the Internet connection allows many other services to traverse it, even those not created by the TV company.

Then you drivel on about how companies already pay to get services close to you. Mind bogglingly naive. Paying to get SERVERS close to people, at a fair market price in free market data centers, is the choice of those companies and allows them to compete however they like. ISPs requiring payment for preferential (or at least non-degraded) transit is essentially a protection racket perpetrated by ISPs who have been handed a monopoly over Internet services in an area. They are NOT A FREE MARKET. We the people have been giving cable companies special treatment for DECADES in the form of tax incentives and other benefits (like easements) to allow them to more easily install wires to homes. You cannot turn around now and say that the free market should be able to decide, because the cable market WAS NOT BUILT AS A FREE MARKET in the first place.

I do agree that the Wallet issue was a bit of a stretch, and not really related to net neutrality, but your argument shows the shocking naivete of a tech person who thinks that behavior problems can be solved by obscure technical solutions. Microsoft still has/had a monopoly and was sued for abusing it, even though that "technically" people could have installed Linux, or chosen to use another browser. The fact that obscure technical workarounds exist to circumvent bad behavior does not excuse the bad behavior.

Finally, the abuse is not theoretical. There have already been numerous examples of preferential network treatment of ISPs, both in the US and elsewhere. The only reason there are not more now is BECAUSE WE HAVE HAD THESE RULES since 2010 (overturned but caused ISPs to pause their plans until it was resolved) and then again in 2015 under Title II. Comcast was already caught throttling bittorrent traffic. A North Carolina ISP was caught blocking Vonage. AT&T blocked FaceTime. These are not "theoretical possibilities of abuse", they are real abuses that directly harmed consumers and the companies they were targeted at.

There really are no "reasonable", well-informed people who do not support net neutrality. The only ones who do are mis or ill informed about what the issue actually is, and use dubious justifications to support their position.

Anonymous said...

"They aren't shills for the telcom lobby, or confused by the telcom lobby. Indeed, those opposed to Net Neutrality are the tech experts who know how packets are routed, whereas the supporters tend only to be lawyers, academics, and activists."

This post would be well served by some references to back up this statement. I haven't seen much support for ending net neutrality outside of Repbulican lawmakers, Ajit Pai, and ISP spokespeople. I do know that Google, NetFlix, Facebook, Mozilla, the EFF, and numerous startups support net neutrality and have plenty of technical staff who "know how packets are routed." The dynamics of the ISP market are so perverted by monopolies and ISP's have such a long history of hostility towards customers that I don't trust anything they say. I'd be tempted to give up net neutrality in exchange for a competitive ISP market, but monopolies without net neutrality seems like a bleak future.

fooman said...

2007ish Comcast was found blocking valid traffic and manipulating packets.
2014ish (and possibly now) Verizon has been found throttling traffic in violation of "end user agreements".

There are many incidents that are documented and even in the courts regarding "doing evil" on the part of providers.

Tech experts are against net neutrality? You mean the likes of Google, Netflix, Amazon, etc. A good chunk of the members of Internet Association? Yah, none of them have any technology experts. Not one. They are all just a bunch of arm chair internet activists.

The fact is there needs to be a balance. Providers need to be able to throttle, ban, etc abusers but have good reason to do so and not have the ability to throttle, ban, etc legitimate content providers. That being one vague example. The current rules seem to favor the consumer marginally more which frankly is how it should be. Just like all our laws should favor people more than corporations or governments.

You're post is, for all intent and purpose, tripe. Any reasonable person sees this.

Anonymous said...

" When people buy Internet service from a cable company, they're buying access to the INTERNET, the globally connected network of all other networks. That is by far not the same thing as connecting to a private internal network that the ISP runs."

Point of order. While I'm not sold on the TV service vs Internet service comparison, buying internet service form an ISP is EXACTLY the same thing as connecting to a private internal network that the ISP runs. The Internet is by definition (and design) a collection of private networks connected together. When you buy access from an ISP, what you're buying is access to their private network. In fact, if you recall the early days of the internet, that's pretty much all you had. Services like AOL were the "internet", but may have had limited (or even no) access to the world wide web. Eventually of course all ISPs offered routing to the WWW part of the internet, because it was a valuable and competitive service to offer customers, but in the end it's still buying access to a private network.

In fact, it's probably easier to think of this in the old dialup terms. How did you get internet access? You dialed into a private network (AOL, Juno, NetZero etc) and they in turn forwarded your connections that didn't have a destination on their private network to other networks.

The modern difference with respect to broadband is of course you don't dial in, you're always connected to that private network and that your ISP also owns the line (where as with dialup your ISP could be entirely separate from the line owner). This however, is not a problem net neutrality would solve.

John Thacker said...

Anyone who supports the FCC Title II regulations should at least admit that they make Intelligence Community spying agreements like the NSA-AT&T Room 641A partnership more likely. This is not hypothetical, everyone should read this Washington Post article from 2013 about "Team Telecom" working closely with the FCC.

"But they ensure that when U.S. government agencies seek access to the massive amounts of data flowing through their networks, the companies have systems in place to provide it securely, say people familiar with the deals.

Negotiating leverage has come from a seemingly mundane government power: the authority of the Federal Communications Commission to approve [undersea] cable licenses. In deals involving a foreign company, say people familiar with the process, the FCC has held up approval for many months while the squadron of lawyers dubbed Team Telecom developed security agreements that went beyond what’s required by the laws governing electronic eavesdropping."

It's not a coincidence at all that the more tightly-regulated by the FCC an Internet company is, the more they cooperate with the government and the intelligence community.

Firefly said...

I agree with your point about how the debate is nuanced and reasonable people disagree. For example, in my household I oppose it and my husband supports it, but we have lots of interesting discussions about it. (And it's not a difference on political lines either.) However, some of your categorisations on the sides of the debates are way off. For one, I'm the legal academic and my husband the software engineer! However, aside from me, there are plenty of lawyer/academics who oppose net neutrality (eg most prominently Christopher Yoo).

Unknown said...

"Comcast was already caught throttling bittorrent traffic. A North Carolina ISP was caught blocking Vonage. AT&T blocked FaceTime."

You are proving the point that we don't need title II. Comcast was caught and fined. As was the North Carolina ISP. That was all before the phrase Net Neutrality had even been coined. AT&T is still blocking FaceTime so in all your examples Net Neutrality wasn't needed or did nothing.

John Thacker said...

"When I buy internet access from comcast, they do not advertise what services they do or do not purposely throttle."

They don't "purposely throttle" anything. (There are cases where increasing demand means that Comcast or whomever has to add additional switches and ports to handle extra traffic, but this is an issue that has existed as long as the Internet has, with disputes about peering and transit between all networks. If that's throttling, then the Internet has always had throttling.)

Rob's comments are about the "cable TV" service that Comcast provides as "Multichannel video programming distributor" (MVPD). In the old days, cable TV was analog, and over frequencies and in a lot of ways similar to broadcast. Then it became digital, and now it's generally over IP. From a certain technical point of view, "cable TV" is exactly the same as everything else over the public Internet, except that Comcast reserves a certain portion of bandwidth for it. (There's a separate issue about how truly broadcasted content is more bandwidth efficient that on demand, but even the "cable TV" product has video on demand and so forth these days.)

If it were invented today, many people, especially net neutrality advocates, would certainly argue that "cable TV" should be illegal. (Other people would be okay with it, seeing it as like when AOL offered its own access plus the public Internet; but AOL didn't own the phone lines and wasn't a monopoly, NN advocates would respond!) But because it's a descendant of the original analog service, and it existed before those companies offered public Internet service over the same wires, it's regulated differently. Instead of having the owner of the wires offer their own specially favored video services, everything should be done "equally."

I associate Title II with T1s and E1s, with PDH and SDH, with Ma Bell and the ITU and the OSI, and all the terrible, slow, expensive, good on paper, full of regulation, government bureaucratic networks that failed. I associate the lack of Title II, and markets and cooperation determining packets, with Ethernet and the IEEE and TCP/IP and the Internet that won. So unlike some people, I don't see the imposition of Title II as "preserving the Internet" (especially since their definition of NN never exists), but as a final attempt at revenge by those who are upset that we didn't all pay tons of money