The Garn LeBaron Writing Project

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A Response to: Why Liberals Should Think Twice About Net Neutrality

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This article is a response to: Why Liberals Should Think Twice About Net Neutrality

As a person who actually understands the technologies in play here, and a strong proponent of net neutrality, I have lots of problems with this article.

You state, “As a card-carrying, knee-jerk, and scarred-in-battle liberal — I was Undersecretary to Ron Brown, Mickey Kantor, and Bill Daley in the Clinton Administration — I can’t for the life of me understand why my fellow-travelers want to impose this burden on the burgeoning broadband Internet. Let me use this space to explain why the Left should back off this “neutrality” charade and move on to a better agenda.”

Working in the Clinton Administration hardly qualifies you as a liberal. That’s like saying you are a moderate Republican because you worked in the Reagan Administration. If you worked to elect Eugene V. Debs or Bernie Sanders, then you might be able to consider yourself a liberal.

You state, “First, “neutrality” means simply that everything on the Internet must travel at the same speed, whether it’s the Bluetooth device that connects my cardiac monitor to a hospital or a kid downloading a video of a cat playing the xylophone. It’s an awkward proposition, but proponents say it’s needed to protect broadband providers from cutting off some sites and content, and to allow “the little guy” to challenge the Big Websites — Google, Facebook, Netflix and the like.”

That is not at all what neutrality means. One of the biggest problems with having a clear debate on the subject, is that the broadband providers and their lackeys are constantly trying to skew what net neutrality actually is. This statement does the same thing. Net neutrality is simple. On the internet, all packets are equal. No packet or set of packets should have any priority over any other packet or set of packets.

And it’s really the only way that the internet can operate effectively. If people are allowed to pay to make their packets have a higher priority than other packets, those who can’t pay as much are immediately squeezed out. If the bandwidth providers would invest in their networks properly, instead of trying to squeeze every penny of their obscene profits, this would not even be an issue. There are lots of countries that already have far better broadband internet services and much better bandwidth. The technology exists today at very reasonable prices to make the internet much faster than it currently is. Lack of investment and capacity planning on the part of US broadband providers has led us to where we are today.

You state, “For one, broadband providers — cable, telco, wireless, and other companies who have paid tens of billions for the privilege of competing for your allegiance — know that their job is to bring you everything the Internet offers. Would you subscribe to an ISP that gave you Fox News but not Olbermann, or gave iTunes an exclusive on music, or only allowed Warner Brothers movies on their system?”

Broadband providers have NOT paid tens of billions for the privilege of competing for my allegiance. They have invested and reaped tens of billions in profit off the back of that investment, all the while failing to properly invest in growing their bandwith capabilities like they should. And if they are competing for allegiance, they are doing a terrible job of it. All the broadband providers are consistently at the top of any survey that lists the most hated and reviled companies in America. Consumers do NOT like ATT, Verizon, Sprint, Comcast, Cox, Charter, or any of these other companies. We use them because we are their hostages. We pay far too much for their services and their profits bear that out.

Now you might argue that if these companies are so profitable, the market ought to provide competition. But it’s not that simple. These companies spend billions erecting barriers to competition. They already have billions in sunk costs (which they have already paid for and profit from daily) and giant networks in place. They don’t have to compete. If I were to try and build a network to compete with them, it would be impossible. They have first mover advantage and will prevent my efforts at every turn.

And the cable companies are already doing what you describe by limiting my choice. Why can’t I have ala carte cable choices? Why do I have to buy my channels in bundles? As a consumer, I should be able to choose exactly which channels I want and which ones I don’t want.

You state, “the Internet isn’t “neutral” right now! Big websites cache their content in server farms around the world, like squirrels burying nuts for the winter. That way, they reach you faster than the “little guy,” even though the net is allegedly “neutral.” But this takes the kind of resources only the Big Websites can generate. Want proof? Well, who’s funding the “neutrality” push to protect the “little guy?” It’s the Big Websites themselves!”

The fact of the matter is that anyone can pay today to cache their content if they choose, it’s not very expensive. You are setting this up as a competition between the content providers and the bandwidth providers. This is a false dichotomy, and one that the bandwidth providers want, because it would allow them to charge even more than they already do and be even more profitable than they already are. This argument is a red herring. I am the little guy. I have no dog in this fight. But I want to be able to exchange packets on the internet. And I want my packets to be distributed equally just like every other packet on the the internet. I don’t want my packets pushed to the back of the line simply because I can’t afford to pay ATT for a delivery premium. Want proof? One of the most efficient methods of moving packets around the internet is bittorrent. Guess which type of packet is the most likely to get throttled on the internet today? Bittorrent. So I pay for bandwidth, but if I actually try to use that bandwith with something like say, peer-to-peer which is actually very efficient, then I am penalized for it.

And don’t forget that the carriers are also in the content provision game. Comcast just bought NBC. Do you think that Comcast will be throttling packets that originate from NBC anytime in the near future? But they will probably be happy to throttle packets from competing networks. That’s why we need net neutrality. The Big Websites can afford to pay for priority packets if they need to. They just don’t want to. But it’s me, the little guy who can’t afford to pay for this. So I will ultimately get burned. And I like the fact that Google and Netflix are going to bat for me on this one.

You state, “When you get down to it, “neutrality” isn’t about “open” versus “closed” Internet or the “big guy” versus the “little guy.” It’s about one bunch of Big Businesses — Google/YouTube, Netflix, and the other Big Websites, who want to travel the Internet at no cost (even if their videos and other content hog bandwidth) and the infrastructure providers, who are looking for ways to cover the costs of the growing demand for bandwidth.”

When you get down to it, you are defending a group of companies (bandwidth providers) who really need to be regulated like public utilities. They also need to be investing much more heavily in the capacity of their networks. If you want fair pricing on bandwidth, then it should be one of two ways,

1. We will provide you with a pipe that is x bits wide for y amount of time at z cost. Since we know that we are providing this and you are paying for it, we ought to be able to plan for this capacity on our network. But if we are greedy bastards and oversell that capacity, then there will be problems. But make no mistake about it, the problem of lack of capacity under this scenario is the fault of the broadband provider, not the fault of the customer or the content provider.

2. We will charge you for every packet that you receive and send at x per packet. This would be true net neutrality. Every packet is paid for and the bandwidth is paid for in a metered fashion. This is the way electricity is paid for. Broadband providers seem to lack the will to impose this type of billing on the net.

You state, “But competition is giving us a burgeoning, innovative broadband network that creates jobs even as it enriches our experience — where was the multi-billion “aps” industry five years ago? The real, progressive broadband agenda is expanding the network into schools, the health care sector, and underserved rural and urban neighborhoods while protecting our privacy, not regulating it to no productive end. There’s no good reason for us to get stuck in “neutral.”

What makes you think that this broadband network is the result of competition? Why are the networks in Asia and Europe so much faster and cheaper than the networks here in the USA? And exactly what have any of these broadband providers done to expand the network to underserved areas out of the goodness of their hearts? And what is the motivation of the carriers to protect our privacy? I personally wish that all packets on the network would be encrypted. Then there would be no alternative BUT net neutrality, because it would be impossible to prioritize traffic based on content that you can’t determine.

Let me finish with a small story from my own experience. When I moved to a rural area in 2000 my only option was 19kbps dial up. I went to the local telco and begged for dsl. They said no. They told me I could have a T-1 for $1500/mo. I went to the local cable company and asked for broadband. They said no. No plans to provide broadband to this rural area. I went to the school district and we wrote up a grant proposal to use the state infrastructure fund to build a broadband wireless network that would serve the entire district and its students. We got the grant, built the network and outsourced the management to a local isp. Things were great and it wasn’t very expensive. Now guess who finally decides to provide broadband access? You guessed it. The local telco and the cable company. Nothing but liars and thieves.

It appears to me that the telcos and the cable monopolies don’t want to invest in their networks any more than they absolutely have to and they want to squeeze out as much profit as possible without the possibility of healthy competition. So they really DO need a healthy dose of regulation.

Written by Garn LeBaron

July 14, 2011 at 12:40 pm

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