The Webcomicker

Who watches the watchmen?

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Call me a skeptic.

Ok, I'm breaking the rules and talking about something not directly related to webcomics. I'm going to talk about Network Neutrality.

Here's the thing. This has become a hot issue online lately. I've seen a lot of webcomickers link to stuff like Save The Internet and a lot of talk about the "evil telecom companies" that are trying to control our content.

You know what I haven't seen? Evidence.

This is not to say that I don't believe all these people. It's just to say that if I've learned anything from my time on the internet, it's to take everything said with a grain of salt. If there's one thing the internet is, it's a gigantic rumor mill. So-and-so said this, and so-and-so said this, and the story gets passed around so quickly no one bothers to check their sources.

Here's what I do know: The government has taken a pro-network neutrality stance in the past. The FCC regulates telecom companies and has been shown in the past to actually enforce network neutrality. In fact, they have a policy statement which seems to support network neutrality.

Now I hear about this new bill called the "Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Efficiency Act of 2006". And everybody's saying that this thing is going to eliminate network neutrality and let telecom companies slow down or even block certain websites. But you know what? I haven't seen anybody quote the section of the bill that does this. I haven't seen someone pull up the text and say: "Look here! There it is!" I haven't even read any quotes from these supposedly "evil" congressmen hinting that this will be the case.

So I did some research. And here's what I found. First of all, here's a link to the actual bill itself. (Note that this particular copy is before the bill had a name. For a history of the thing, check out this page). The vast majority of the bill just has to do with new regulations for creating "franchises", that is rules on how to become a cable provider and set down your lines and whatnot. At the end there's some discussion of Voice Over IP services and how the government can't show favoritism to any provider. That's all well and good. Now, the part that we're interested in is pages 25 and 26. Go ahead and read it.

Go on.

Ok, not too exciting, right? All it does is give the FCC the right to enforce their "broadband policy". Which policy is this? Well, at the bottom of page 26 it tells us: the term ‘Commission’s broadband policy statement’ means the policy statement adopted on August 5, 2005, and issued on September 23, 2005, In the Matters of Appropriate Framework for Broadband Access to the Internet over Wireline Facilities, and other Matters. Ok, fine. Whatever. So I go ahead and pull up this particulr document as well, and here it is. Now, this document is much more interesting, because it outlines exactly how things are going to change.

Here's where it starts getting weird. That FCC document outlines the FCC's new policies to support their policy statement. The policy statement is this:

  1. Consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice;
  2. Consumers are entitled to run applications and services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement;
  3. Consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network; and
  4. Consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.
This sounds a lot like network neutrality, doesn't it?

Or does it? Notice that nowhere in that statement is there any assertion that all content be provided equally, only that it must be provided. And that's the distinction.

HOWEVER, this does not mean the government is eliminating network neutrality. If you read the FCC report (and you should, it gives a pretty interesting history of the government's stance on these issues), you see that the real truth is that the FCC is no longer going to enforce network neutrality. The stance of the FCC is this: by enforcing network neutrality, we basically force all broadband internet companies to provide the exact same content. By forcing them to provide the same content, we eliminate any possibility of competition between telecommunications companies. By eliminating competition, we eliminate the drive for new technology and better services. If we stop regulating so harshly, not only should new and better technology emerge, but the market should also converge to some sort of new "network neutrality" driven not by government force but by competition.

Are they right? It's difficult to say. Look at it from the telecom companies' point of view for a moment: They are, in terms of physical reality, the internet. They provide the actual wires, routers, switches, and solid infrastructure on which the internet runs. They don't own the servers, but they own all the transmission lines and are responsible for the maintenance thereof. And as the internet grows by leaps and bounds, that structure is becoming increasingly taxed. The average user demands far more bandwidth these days than they used to, and providing all that bandwidth is neither easy nor cheap. How do you recoup the loss? You can either charge the user more, which isn't going to work because then they'll flock to your competitor, or you can charge the content provider who is using all your bandwidth. And what's the only incentive you can give a content provider to pay you money? Offer to deliver his content faster. Only, you can't do that under the current system of network neutrality!

So you can see the predicament of the telecom company. But at the same time, you value the principle of network neutrality. So what are you going to do?

My advice: let the legislation pass and see what happens. I think it's funny that people are usually so opposed to government regulation of things, but in this case, when the government actually wants to regulate less, everyone's up in arms. And honestly, I don't think it's going to result in the mass-blocking of websites that don't pay so-and-so telecom company money. If companies start blocking sites they will only reduce the amount of content they have available to their customers and therefore become less desirable. Competition should drive the companies to try to increase their content in any way possible, and the costs levied to content providers should only be applied to those companies which are a massive drain on bandwidth, such as high volume multimedia providers (like, say, Google Video).

In the words of Fred Upton, one of the supporters of the bill: "Finally, I want to briefly mention the net neutrality provision in the Committee Print. While there is virtually no evidence of actual bad behavior in the marketplace, I believe that authorizing the FCC to enforce its Broadband Policy Statement -- on a case-by-case adjudicatory basis -- is a better framework to ensure that the public Internet remains open and dynamic versus alternatively adopting anticipatory regulation, which would have a dramatically chilling effect on broadband deployment and the development of exciting, new services."

Look, I know there are also good arguments out there against letting the telecom companies regulate themselves, especially since it's been shown in the past that companies are more likely to collude than to compete and generally are more interested in driving other people out of the business than improving their services and content. But all of the arguments being made on the internet are so incredibly one-sided and based more on assumption than fact, that I really felt like I had to present the other side of the issue.

Above all else, I urge you to actually read the Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Efficiency Act of 2006 and the new policy it is going to put into effect, then make your own decision about the issue. If you end up disagreeing with me, that's fine. But please, disagree with me using an informed opinion rather than because of "what you read on some guy's blog". Don't believe the spin. Look at the facts.


At 4:03 PM, Anonymous Ridlium said...

Gilead -- It sure is nice to see that someone else has actually read the bill and feels as I do that it is a fair approach to the continued evolution of the net. Thank you for stepping into the argument so forcefully and well armed.

At 10:58 PM, Blogger watcher said...

A well written article. The reason I generally don't support government regulation of any type is that I feel that it is far easier to make a regulation than to repeal it when it proves itself faulty. If none of the proposed regulations pass, then we're still in the same place: letting the telcos monitor themselves and hoping that market pressures keep them from abusing their powers. So why let regulations go through that have the same end result as no regulation at all?

At 5:59 AM, Anonymous pashmina said...

Doesn't current FCC regulation already protect us from infringements on NN? Do we need new legislation? I'm generally against laws written by a body with financial ties to everybody, especially when they are superfluous and/or redundant.

At 7:09 PM, Blogger Net Chick said...

A poster on another blog mentioned, “What’s neutral about rigging a game, by choosing who will win and lose a game before it is played?” This is precisely what the government is trying to do to our Internet. The bigger ISPs such as Verizon are being punished for offering fantastic services at reasonable prices to EVERYONE. Why should that be regulated? As far as the need for all data traffic to be treated equally, I don’t expect that my search for blue shoes on should take precedence over a national emergency terrorist alert. So, if net neutrality becomes a reality, my blue shoe search would not interfere with a terrorist’s plan to strike America unnoticed. Way to go!

At 7:28 PM, Anonymous Clem said...

I really like the way you fleshed it out - and I should probably thank you for doing all that reading for me! I tend to agree here...there has always been potential for the sort of abuses that NN proponents are warning about, but it hasn't happened. I really hope we don't jump the gun here. Playing the guitar while New Orleans drowned was one thing, but in this case I think we can afford to let The Decider and his Congress wait and see before imploring them to act.

At 10:18 PM, Blogger lessgov said...

See the compliments actually thinking about the issue will get you? Bloggers, take notice. At any rate, your skepticism is warranted. There are thsoe who believe that the free market has no value in terms of protecting the consumer. This is patently ridiculous. I agree that the government must monitor, and even regulate industries whenever necessary. However, I also agree that we need a compelling reason (other than empty demagoguery) to ask the government get involved.

At 8:09 PM, Blogger stevens33 said...

It's good to hear some common sense on this issue. Keep up the good work, and I suppose it's ok to talk about things other than comics sometimes . . .


Post a Comment

<< Home