What Airlines, The Mafia And The Law Of Unintended Consequences Can Teach Us About Net Neutrality

Mar 7 2014, 8:47am CST | by

`Net neutrality’ is a loaded term that means different things to different people. For companies whose business model relies on using somebody else’s Internet network as a distribution system, it means maintaining the Web as a common carrier like the old long-distance telephone system. For companies like Comcast, it means heavy-handed regulation that stifles investment in faster networks. For engineers, it can all seem like a distraction from the real job of getting America up to the gigabit speeds of other nations like Korea. This guest post is by Leonard A. Giuliano, a Working Group chair at the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), coauthor of “Interdomain Multicast Routing: Practical Juniper Networks and Cisco Systems Solutions” (Addison-Wesley 2002) and a Distinguished Engineer at Juniper Networks.  Giulano’s modest proposal is that carriers simply pick one way of carrying traffic and disclose it. The opinions expressed in this work are solely those of the author and do not reflect the position and was not approved, authorized or in any way sanctioned by any of the organizations with which he is affiliated.

By Leonard A. Giuliano

The most interesting aspect of the Net Neutrality debate is that both sides are essentially right.  Large carriers argue that differentiating traffic is vital to provide a good customer experience- treating voice and video differently than bulk data transfers, for example, is a fundamental precept in good network design.  After all, airlines offer priority class services to customers willing to pay a premium for which they receive a larger seat and a friendly flight attendant eager to deliver a refreshing glass of champagne and a warm towel (and in the process, cross subsidizing lower fares for coach class passengers).  But there are other models for service differentiation.  The Mafia, for example, offers “priority protection services” to customers with the implication that refusing to pay may result in bodily harm.  Carriers claim they should be able to provide the same type of service differentiation that airlines provide.  Content providers fear those differentiation services will inevitably evolve to resemble the Mafia model, where carriers will demand “protection money” to prevent their packets from being kneecapped.  Service differentiation could bring more choices, lower prices and a better experience for consumers… or it could bring an end to the Open Internet as we know it.

Worse yet, any solution of new rules or guidelines, whether enforced by the FCC or legislated by Congress, will most likely render the Neutrality medicine worse than the disease.  Even with the purest, most benevolent intentions, it is practically impossible to construct verbiage that wouldn’t have either the worst of unintended consequences or be totally meaningless.  Armies of lawyers on all sides stand at the ready to exploit any new rule or law along these two extremes.

One simple alternative that avoids these risks is transparency.  Carriers should be allowed to differentiate traffic however they desire as long as they disclose exactly what they are doing.  Additionally, carriers must provide a uniform policy of differentiation in all markets.  With these two simple rules, consumers will be empowered to decide the matter themselves.

Guidelines for transparency actually do exist and indeed were upheld in a recent court ruling.  But disclosure alone is insufficient without service uniformity do to the current competitive landscape for broadband services throughout the US.  In most markets, there are two broadband options, typically provided by the traditional phone company and the traditional cable company.  However, these carriers do not overlap in all areas.  For example, in some markets, Comcast competes with Verizon for broadband subscribers, while they compete with AT&T in other markets.  Likewise, Verizon competes with Comcast in some markets and Cox in others.  Further, in some markets only one broadband provider exists.  By mandating a carrier must provide a uniform set of traffic differentiation policies in all markets in which they operate, a carrier is prevented from offering a predatory differentiation policy in an area in which they might be the only game in town.  With this requirement, all carriers essentially compete with all other carriers, rather than the current monopoly/duopoly situation that exists in the vast majority of markets today.

Competition and a truly free market can only exist if consumers are informed and empowered to decide amongst competing providers.  To illustrate how this would work, imagine Carrier A competes with Carrier B in a particular market.  Carrier A decides to start throttling the throughput of popular third-party services like Netflix and Vonage, perhaps to bolster their own competing video and phone offerings.  With disclosure of such throttling, Carrier B can now attract Carrier A’s customers in this market with the promise of offering unfettered access to Netflix and Vonage.  Of course, Carrier B could also collude with Carrier A and deploy the same throttling policies, but Carrier C, which competes with Carrier B in a different market, could then steal Carrier B’s customers away.  In this way, Carrier A and Carrier C (and indeed all other carriers) compete with one another even though they may not be present in any of the same markets.  Again, there is the theoretical possibility that all carriers could collude and deploy the same throttling policies, but the number of broadband carriers, while most agree is smaller than ideal, is still large enough to make this unlikely.  The incentives are far stronger for, say, smaller carriers desperate to steal customers away from much larger carriers, to tout their ability to deliver the best experience for Netflix and Vonage users.  Finally, carriers may find dubious (shady) policies are not worth the negative publicity they may generate when they are disclosed, and thus prevent their practices in the first place.  “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

Of course, when it comes to transparency, the devil is in the details.  For disclosure to be of any value, it must be clear, simple and meaningful to typical consumers.  Meaningful disclosure might look something along the lines of “We place Netflix traffic in a special class which receives lower priority for bandwidth resources than the class used for standard Internet traffic.”  Transparency in these clear and simple terms would provide the consumer a basis for comparing services between different carriers.   From a technical perspective, the mechanisms operating under the covers to provide traffic differentiation and prioritization can be extremely complex, however, the resultant behaviors can generally be explained in the kind of clear and simple terms described in this example.  Some carriers may claim that such information is proprietary and divulging these details puts them at a competitive disadvantage.  However, explaining to customers what terms of service they can expect, especially with regard to thorny issues that approach the boundaries of predation, should not be considered a competitive disadvantage.  It can also provide carriers inoculation from false claims that they discriminate against certain traffic when in fact other conditions like network congestion or overloaded servers run by content providers are to blame for poor performance.  Moreover, this level of disclosure is far less onerous and potentially harmful to their business than some of the legislative options being pondered, especially given that all their competitors would follow these same rules.

“Don’t be evil” has become a popular motto, but the line between sound network design that provides the best experience for users and evil predatory practices can become blurry and difficult to judge.  With the simple requirements of transparency and service uniformity, the most powerful and just judge of all, the consumer, would get final say over the matter.

Source: Forbes Business

 
 

Don't miss ...

 

<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/30" rel="author">Forbes</a>
Forbes is among the most trusted resources for the world's business and investment leaders, providing them the uncompromising commentary, concise analysis, relevant tools and real-time reporting they need to succeed at work, profit from investing and have fun with the rewards of winning.

 

blog comments powered by Disqus

Latest stories

WHO to unveil response plan for Ebola
United Nations, Aug 23 (IANS) The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said it will unveil a response plan to deal with the current Ebola virus outbreak in west Africa.
 
 
EU to fund agricultural products affected by Russia's ban
Brussels, Aug 23 (IANS) Experts of the European Union (EU) said Friday that the EU would provide additional funding for agricultural products affected by Russia's food import ban.
 
 
Irish man tests negative for Ebola virus
Dublin, Aug 22 (IANS) Laboratory test samples of an Irish man, who died after recently returning from Africa, have proved negative for Ebola virus, health authorities in Ireland said Friday.
 
 
Soyuz rocket carrying two Galileo satellites lifts off
Brussels, Aug 22 (IANS) A Soyuz rocket carrying two Galileo satellites, the fifth and sixth of Europe's Galileo global satellite navigation system, lifted off from the spaceport in French Guiana Friday, the European Space Agency (ESA) has announced.
 
 
 

Latest from the Network

Two IS militants arrested in Morocco
Rabat, Aug 23 (IANS) Two Islamic State (IS) militants, who were planning to leave for training camps in Syria and Iraq, were arrested in Morocco, the interior ministry said. The two have connections with foreign...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
Want a perfect selfie? Try this 'perfume bottle'
New York, Aug 23 (IANS) For fashion-loving teenage girls who enjoy taking selfies but do not want the world to see, Sony has launched a unique perfume bottle-look camera that can be a perfect bag accessory. The Cyber-...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Talk to celebrities at Emmy Awards with Facebook app
New York, Aug 23 (IANS) Facebook has teamed up with entertainment show "Access Hollywood" to launch an app that will connect fans with their favourite celebrities in real time during the 66th Emmy Awards nights Aug 25...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
WHO to unveil response plan for Ebola
United Nations, Aug 23 (IANS) The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said it will unveil a response plan to deal with the current Ebola virus outbreak in west Africa. "The WHO has announced that it is working on a...
Read more on Business Balla
 
Cuban fishermen discover ancient artifacts
Havana, Aug 23 (IANS) Fishermen in Cuba's Pinar del Rio province have discovered artifacts believed to be from a 17th or 18th century shipwreck. The "important marine archaeological find" was recently discovered off...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Bangladesh shot out for 77, West Windies win series
St.George's (Grenada), Aug 23 (IANS/CMC) Spinner Sunil Narine triggered an avalanche of batsmen as Bangladesh crashed to a 177-run defeat allowing West Indies to take 2-0 lead in their three-match One Day International...
Read more on Sport Balla
 
Narine warns against taking Bangladesh lightly
St. George's (Grenada), Aug 23 (IANS/CMC) West Indies off spinner Sunil Narine has cautioned against taking Bangladesh lightly following his side's crushing 177-run victory in the second One-Day International (ODI)...
Read more on Sport Balla
 
Nearly 200,000 killed since start of Syrian crisis: UN
United Nations, Aug 23 (IANS) The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, Friday said that more than 191,000 people have been killed in Syria between March 2011 and April 2014, saying that the ongoing...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
Atletico Madrid beat Real to lift Spanish Supercup
Madrid, Aug 23 (IANS) Atletico Madrid won the Spanish Supercup 2-1 on aggregate following a 1-0 win over Real Madrid in the second leg of the competition in the Vicente Calderon Stadium Friday night. Following a 1-1...
Read more on Sport Balla
 
Hamas attack kills boy in Israel
Jerusalem, Aug 23 (IANS) A four-year-old boy was killed Friday evening by a mortar attack on southern Israel by Hamas, authorities said. The child was killed when a mortar barrage launched from the Gaza Strip hit a...
Read more on Politics Balla