Hard News by Russell Brown

Everything is at stake

If you need an excuse to distrust big telcos, and Keith's last post didn't do it for you, check out The End of the Internet on the website of The Nation. It looks at a lobbying effort by Verizon and others to implement what it describes as "an alarming set of strategies that would transform the free, open and nondiscriminatory Internet of today to a privately run and branded service that would charge a fee for virtually everything we do online."

I'll write a more layperson-friendly account of the issues for The Listener, but basically, it comes down to this. Let's say you have a choice between competing online auction services from Companies A, B and C. Company A is the big, wealthy player, but you prefer Company C - because they have a better interface, they're the little guys, you like their attitude, whatever.

But you wake up one morning and you can barely get a page to load on Company C's site - while Company A's site is like lightning. That's because Company A has paid your ISP (or done some other deal you have no control over), and Company C hasn't.

Or perhaps you suddenly find that Skype won't work properly on your broadband connection - but a competing (but objectively inferior) IP telephony service will, because its owners have - you guessed it - paid the money demanded by your ISP. What the hell happened to your choice? Or to the great meritocracy of the Internet?

Don't believe it couldn't happen here. The irony in New Zealand, of course, is that we've already had a little look at this kind of world, both through regulation (ISPs who re-sell Telecom DSL connections aren't allowed to offer "real time" services such as IP telephony over those connections, and the network is crippled to make sure they can't), and in the case of the suits over-ruling the geeks in the de-peering fiasco.

(Speaking of regulation, with NBR, the Herald, the Dom Post and Fran O'Sullivan suddenly lining up to urge Labour to jolly well do something about Telecom and broadband, the government has a free pass to decree unbundling of Telecom's network. This would not seem to have been lost on Helen Clark. But here's the thing: have all those centre-righters bitching about Labour needing to do something had a fit of amnesia about the farcical back-to-the-90s telecommunications policy that National took into the election last year? I mean, the lurch to practicality is welcome and everything, but really.)

But back to The End of the Internet. In the US, in 2004, the FCC declared four principles of network neutrality (short version: just deliver the bits, dammit). The big telcos need to roll this annoying effort to protect choice, and they're doing it by, among other things, funding The Progress and Freedom Foundation, whose website is full of faux-libertarian bullshit arguing for the right of big companies to wreck the Internet.

Of course, "real" libertarians can be just as silly: the Cato Institute published a peculiarly masochistic paper on the issue back in 2004. Look guys, no one likes regulation and it would be preferable if it wasn't necessary, but the real world doesn't actually work according to your pollyanna visions. And seeing as you don't really get it, could you be a little less patronising? The optimum future network structure - with the intelligence at the edges - is clear to anyone who actually cares, but it is a structure that doesn't really need a big, ticket-clipping, switch-throwing telco in the centre. And that's their problem.

DPF noted this disturbing trend last month on the InternetNZ blog, citing the threat it posed to "an open and uncapturable Internet". The Marginal Revolution post he pointed to leads to a wealth of other material. There's also a useful Washington Post story, and the great Vint Cerf (who now works for Google) said what needed to be said before a US Senate Committee. When Vint says it, you can take it to the bank. He began thus:

The Internet’s open, neutral architecture has proven to be an enormous engine for market innovation, economic growth, social discourse, and the free flow of ideas. The remarkable success of the Internet can be traced to a few simple network principles – end-to-end design, layered architecture, and open standards -- which together give consumers choice and control over their online activities. This “neutral” network has supported an explosion of innovation at the edges of the network, and the growth of companies like Google, Yahoo, eBay, Amazon, and many others. Because the network is neutral, the creators of new Internet content and services need not seek permission from carriers or pay special fees to be seen online. As a result, we have seen an array of unpredictable new offerings – from Voice-over-IP to wireless home networks to blogging – that might never have evolved had
central control of the network been required by design.

Allowing broadband carriers to control what people see and do online would fundamentally undermine the principles that have made the Internet such a success. (His emphasis.)

And concluded like this:

The Internet has become an immense catalyst for economic growth and prosperity, in this country and around the world. However, our nation is risking the loss of that catalyst, just when the broadband era should be creating the most benefits for the most people. Allowing the interests of network owners to shackle the Internet could severely undercut our nation’s ability to compete effectively in the global market. We must do all we can to preserve the fundamental enabling principles of the Internet: user choice, innovation, and global competitiveness.

Google looks forward to working with this Committee to fashion carefully-tailored legislative language that protects the legitimate interests of America’s Internet users. And that includes the future interests of the next Google, just waiting to be born in someone’s dorm room or garage.

Thank you.

Such a polite man.

And, finally, there's a good explanation of what's at stake here:

As Internet historian Randall Stross explains: "Rather than having network operators select content providers on our behalf - the philosophy of the local cable company - the Internet allows all of us to act as our own network programmers, serving a demographic of just one person."

The brilliance of this end-to-end network is that the intelligence resides at the edge of the network; the wires in between simply pass information between individual users. The network's only job is to move data - not to stifle user innovation by selecting which services to privilege with higher speeds.

As a result of this openness, anyone can try out a new idea without having to cross a cable or telephone company's permission barrier ... Without safeguards against corporate meddling, the Internet's open road to innovation will become a closed hi-way for big media and their self-selected allies.

So that's what's at stake. Everything.