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Net Neutralities defined

Ed Felten offers a brief and useful taxonomy of Net neutrality. The discussion in the comments is helpful, too. So are David Isenberg’s additional thoughts.

Before the anti-NN folks pounce on the admitted ambiguity of the term, I have two comments.

First, free speech is even harder to pin down and apply, but it’s still a principle worth supporting. (Preemptive defense: No, I’m not saying free speech and NN are equally important. I’m making a point about the logic of the argument.)

Second, as far as I’m concerned, the core of NN, and underneath all three of Ed’s flavors, is the idea that the network should be equally open to all ideas. Or, put differently, those who provide access to the Net should not be allowed to favor some bits over others. Put thirdly, no one should be allowed to decide for others what the Net is for.

None of these formulations are easy to apply. Even doing a first-in-first-out prioritization favors some bits over others. But, this is exactly the same sort of argument one has about free speech: “Oh yeah, Mr. Free Speecher. So you think spies ought to be able to blab state secrets, and there shouldn’t be laws against perjury…?” NN is the right principle. How it’s applied is a matter of justice and politics.

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20 Responses to “Net Neutralities defined”

  1. re: free speech. I disagree. Free speech is very easy to pin down.

    The only hard part is when you hit on an area where you might not like the consequences (the classic shouting fire in a crowd, etc). But the concept itself is fairly straightforward: there will be no government-enforced consequences to anything you say.

  2. But, Adam, people who believe in free speech also believe in government-enforced consequences to what you say. You can’t lie in court. You can’t give away government secrets. Slander. Libel. Blackmail. Threats. There’s a long list of speech that brings government sanctions.

  3. But … but … It’s been black-letter law for more than a decade that the network is NOT “equally open to all ideas”, as in, ISP’s have fairly broad powers in this area (though not unlimited). Moreover, anyone against that ISP power would generally be severely flamed for that position. It even had its own catchphrase for the ranters, “MY SERVER MY RULES!!!”

    I get in trouble when I ask about the political reasoning, and I shouldn’t do it, but it’s just so strange to me to see this stuff.

  4. Seth, because I want to understand this, could you explain more about how “my server my rules” gets implemented by access providers these days? Just some examples…? I want to make sure that we’re talking about the same thing, and at the same level of the stack.

  5. Well, what do you mean by “all ideas” – do you mean network management, which is one issue, or do you mean content, which is another issue – and what I was referring to. For content, all ISP’s generally have a TOS where they say they can deny you service for a very broad range of reasons. I’m not taking the Libertarian line on that as a normative issue, but purely as descriptive matter, it’s been that way for a long time, backed up by various laws. Network management is of course now very legally contentious, but “my server my rules” there as a principle would mean it would be the ISP’s unquestioned right to do what it wishes.

    I’m having bad flashbacks at the moment to the days when a certain mean and nasty lawyer would bully anyone who advocated differently, personally attacking them. I don’t think I’ll ever really “get” politics.

  6. Seth, I’d almost put in an expansion of “all ideas,” but purposefully kept it out just to keep the post short. I meant by it both content in the free speech sense (subject to the same laws that govern speech) and applications.

    NN as I understand it would contravene the “my _pipes_ my rules” maxim.

    Certainly network mgt is the hard part of applying NN, since we all want well-managed networks but there’s disagreement about what the values are by which “well-managed” is to be evaluated, including what trade-offs are desirable. There are also disagreements about the facts. This is the very essence of a political struggle, by which I do not mean that it’s waged by politicians, but that it’s an issue that cannot be resolved except by the unpredictable interaction of culture, institutions, and power.

  7. “I meant by it both content in the free speech sense (subject to the same laws that govern speech) and applications.”

    But … but … what did I just point out? The free speech sense contradicts a decade of law, and also what was pretty much the dominant viewpoint (not that there weren’t people who thought differently, but definitely an unpopular perspective and a surefire way to get some very snide and insulting reactions).

    Applications make even less sense, because they tend to conflict and have different requirements. You can’t have a net open to all ideas, if someone has the idea of making a business from using all user’s bandwidth for free – which is not a _reductio ad absurdem_ argument, but pretty much a real case!

    And bluntly, there’s “disagreements about the facts” like Evolution or, better, Climate Change. It’s that sort of “political struggle”.

  8. NN would prevent access providers from blocking access to content that they do not like. That might require a change in the TOS. This is hardly a radical new idea, Seth. It’s Principle #1 of Powell’s Four Internet Freedoms. It’s also consonant with Martin’s addendum that the content has to be lawful. It is, in short, the FCC’s position, at least as I understand it.

    A business that uses all a user’s bandwidth for free against the will of the user is engaged in some type of DOS attack. If, on the other hand, the user chooses to uses all of her bandwidth for some app, then that should be up to the user. If the access provider can’t bear the load, then it’s oversold its capacity, and there are a number of remedies. NN would prevent the access provider from unilaterally discriminating against an app/protocol/use. Letting users allocate their bandwidth is one way around this. As for blocking DOS attacks, I think you’ll have trouble finding a NN supporter who opposes this, just as free speech advocates are generally ok with laws banning bullhorns being used in the middle of the night. (No, the two cases are not exactly analogous; my point is that both free speech and NN admit of exceptions.)

    At least because we don’t yet know what future/pending tech will do to or for channel capacity, the facts are in dispute.

  9. “NN would prevent access providers from blocking access to content that they do not like.”

    But … but … It’s been black-letter law for more than a decade that access providers can block access to content that they do not like.
    (within limits).

    No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of—

    (A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected;

    Are you saying that you favor repealing this portion of the law?

    It’s not a radical new idea, but it is against both existing law and the my-server-my-rules paradigm.

    NN is also mandating complicated technical approaches to simple technical problems for a kind of ideological purity test. I think the free-speech equivalent is the case where someone wants to censor a free(cost) newspaper, so they take all the copies, and say they’ve committed no crime because the paper is free(cost).

  10. Freedom is an individual being able to act without constraint (save the constraints of their natural environment).

    Liberty is freedom in the presence of a constitutional government where remedial action will be taken AFTER others’ natural rights have been violated – in order to defend citizens’ rights equally.

    Censorship is where an individual’s freedom (specifically of speech) is physically limited BEFORE they can violate anyone’s rights (or do anything else the state would not have them do, e.g. reveal state corruption, or infringe its corporate sponsors’ copyright).

    So prohibitions against incitement of violence, IP theft, plagiarism, are fine given these are rights violations, but censorship remains unwarranted even for its potential ability to prevent those rights violations, precisely because censorship its itself a rights violation, i.e. of the right to liberty.

    In a free society citizens remain free, unencumbered and unconstrained by the state, and that includes being free to violate each others’ rights.

    Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequence or repercussion, but the right to speak without physical constraint or interference, especially by the state.

    Incidentally, see the movie Minority Report for an example of how censorship would work if it applied to freedom of action rather than just speech.

    “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety” Benjamin Franklin

  11. Seth, as you know, IANAL. But, sure, I’d favor repealing that law! Given the extremely weak competitive situation, I am very unhappy with allowing Verizon or Comcast (et al.) to censor constitutionally protected speech, just as we would not permit AT&T to censor our phone calls. Would you be ok with Verizon blocking your site or your IM’s because they don’t like the content?

    As for “my server my rules,” I do believe that access providers should be subject to laws and regulations.

  12. IANAL either … but this is pretty basic stuff. The catechism is that the Internet is a “network of networks”, basically a bunch of very lightly regulated private businesses which have a large amount of policy-setting power (not unquestioned, but broad). This is often mischaracterized as being “unregulated”, but it’s more like ISP’s are treated like shipping companies, which can indeed decide to be arbitrary as to what they carry and what they charge for freight.

    I’m not arguing the policy with you. I’m trying to figure out the politics. As I keep saying, it’s extremely weird to me.

    I’m not offended, but your comment – “Would you be ok with Verizon blocking your site or your IM’s because they don’t like the content?” –
    is highly ironic.

  13. My catechism is that the network of networks is characterized by adherence to a particular set of protocols. Those protocols, according to my weak understanding (IANAG: g=geek) is that they they adhere to the end-to-end principle that tries to avoid unnecessary discrimination. (The “unnecessary” allows discussion of exceptions.) The access providers are allowed, within the open market, to charge what they want, but since it’s not a truly open market, some degree of regulation seems to me to be desirable.

    As for the access providers deciding _what_ they’ll carry: I’m fine with legislation that provides them safe harbor and for NOT allowing them to block constitutionally protected speech.

    But, I believe I’m missing your point. I appreciate that you’re not arguing policy. But I’m not sure what sort of answer would be responsive to your desire to understand the politics of it. I’m missing something pretty obvious, which seems to be my speciality. Do you mean the political values that moves NN supporters?(E.g., “I love free speech above all else”) Or do you want to know what secret benefits NN supporters get for their position? (E.g., “I get paid by Google and don’t want to upset my relationship with them”). Or something else?

    I also don’t see the unintended irony of my statement. I was (implicitly) hypothesizing that you had stuff on your site or in your instant messages that the ISPs found objectionable, whatever that content might be. What am I missing?

  14. Well, as a technical matter, “end-to-end’ is highly oversimplified to the point of being wrong, as many have explained.

    I’m trying to frame my questions in a way which won’t anger you. They are about the reasoning and ecology of the surrounding politics. I’m sincerely interested in it because it continually flabbergasts me (which is probably more about my lack of understanding of politics than anything else).
    I suppose the deep question is a paradox that can rarely be answered.
    More minor questions here were about if you really were saying what you appeared to be saying (since a few years ago, it would have been a very disfavored stance).

    The phrase “secret benefits” is kind of a strawman. I’d put it more at “economy of influence”.

    For the irony, well, I don’t think you’d believe me if I fully explained it, though I’ve mentioned elements to you before :-(. I’d say “Hint: What was my highest accomplishment in net.policy?”, but these days, most people would probably think that was writing critical columns about Wikipedia, since that’s what I seem to be most well-known for now.

  15. I think I understand your question now, Seth. It is the discussion you and I keep having in which you assume that those who disagree with you (or at least I) must have some ulterior motive because you think we are too smart to actually believe what we say we believe. When I protest that I don’t have ulterior motives (beyond the inevitable ones due to the fact that we all live in a social world), you think I must be dissembling; given your premises, it’s natural to think that those who are suborned (one way or another) would of course also deny that they have been suborned.

    And the irony of the irony is that of course I’d believe your explanation, because I don’t share your premises about the motivation of those with whom I disagree. I think you tell me the truth about your beliefs and about your reasons for those beliefs.

    If I’ve got this wrong — I’m doing a LOT of filling in here — please feel free to set me straight. No offense intended.

  16. To reply directly, without taking offense, your description is simplistically caricaturing a far more nuanced and logical perspective.

    There are professions – trial lawyer, political lobbyist, PR flack, marketer, etc. – which I call “paid liar”. Asking people in these professions “Do you really believe what you just said, or are you only saying it because it’s your job?” is paradoxical, since their job is to lie (to a certain approximation – one can dance around the blunt characterization, but that’s the basic idea). This is merely a fact. Not everyone is dedicated to truth and justice.

    Large amounts of corporate money at stake have an inverse correlation to truth and justice, another fact.

    So, for people who make their living saying things which please people with large amounts of money, well, let’s say that’s a very different case than the generic “those who disagree with you”.

    You are a very smart and sophisticated man. You have to be, in order to prosper in the environment you’re in.

    I often wonder how people who survive and prosper in that environment, manage to do it, and how they think.

    Thus, I try to figure out how to frame questions that can and might be answered.

    0) Is David really making a free-speech argument? Yes
    1) Does David know it’s long been law that ISPs can block “objectionable” content? No.
    2) Does David care? Also No (again, approximately)
    Which is very interesting from my perspective.

    Now, the question “Is David making this free-speech argument because he’s trying to come up with a clever way to market NN?” – I’d love to know the answer, but of course it’s going to be denied even if it were true. Note – at this point, the strawman is to claim I believe “… and so he MUST be lying”. I didn’t say that.
    Note also something like “I [heart] free speech” isn’t addressing that question either.

    And you wouldn’t believe my explanation, not because you’d think I’m a liar myself, but rather that there’s too many aspects of it which would cause cognitive dissonance (for an analogy, imagine the terrible time the bona-fide victims of CIA mind-control experiments must have if they try to tell anyone about it).

  17. Seth, first, thanks for the corrections and expansions.

    As I know from having had this conversation with you several times over the past few years, there is nothing that I can say about my motives that you will believe (except perhaps to admit to being influenced in ways that I’m not being influenced). I make the free speech argument for NN because I am a liberal who wants the Net to remain open to all constitutionally protected speech. The only place I can think of where I made a NN argument and was paid was at a cable conf where I was booed. Nor have I been paid by any of the companies supporting NN, as far as I can recall. Nor do I have prospects of being paid.

    But, then, I would say that :)

    So, as in the past, I don’t see a way forward with this conversation about my motives. Do you? I think not, since you write “of course it’s going to be denied even if it were true.”

  18. As I pointed out above, I’m trying not to ask paradoxical questions about your motives. But rather ” I try to figure out how to frame questions that can and might be answered.”. I wouldn’t say I’ve been totally successful in keeping away from the motives question in this thread, but trying to avoid it in specific is how I’ve been addressing the issue (thanks for the replies, by the way).

    Note I don’t claim there’s a direct payment, and in fact have criticized (admittedly usually privately) people who make such charges, which I regard as again too simplistic. But denying, let us say, the broad ecology, would be absurd.

  19. I’ve looked into the “settled law” a bit. The right to prohibit even protected speech is part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which at the time was intended to apply to the thousands of local dialup ISPs. The Brand X decision of the Supreme Court reclassified cable access from Title II (= the telecommunication industry), and putting them under to Title I (= deregulated information services). (Result: Cable did not have to provide access to third party providers, and we quickly went from thousands of ISPs to a handful.) The language you, Seth, refer to is under Title II (although it has in the past been argued that it applies to “Title I” services). There is debate about whether broadband should be considered entirely within Title I.

    Do I favor changing the law? It wouldn’t require a change in the law: Since a regulatory decision already re-classified broadband as “deregulated,” a similar regulatory decision could re-classify it again to prohibit discrimination (requiring some wrangling with definitions and mutual exclusivity of terms like “telecommunications service” and “information service”). But, yes, I would favor rewriting the obsolete 1996 Telecommunications Act (and the outmoded and technologically siloed structure of the Communications Act overall).

  20. But … but … but … but …

    Stepping back for a second – David, you’re having the wrong argument with me. You seem to think I’m in favor of ISP blocking. This is what I found highly ironic.

    What I am is agog at the alternate universe I seemed to have slipped into, which is vaguely like a SF story where one element is permuted (“President Gore said today he regrets the Saudi Arabia war has proven so destructive, while praising the efforts of America’s strongest ally in the region, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein …”).

    Is anyone still reading? Would there be any point to my replying on the “settled law” aspect?

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