The debate over whether municipalities should be allowed to provide Internet access has been heating up. Twenty states ban it. Tom Wheeler, the chair of the FCC, has said he wants to “preempt” those laws. Congress is maneuvering to extend the ban nationwide.
Jim Baller, who has been writing about the laws, policies, and economics of network deployment for decades, has found an eerie resonance of this contemporary debate. Here’s a scan of the table of contents of a 1906 (yes, 1906) issue of Moody’s that features a symposium on “Municipal Ownership and Operation.”
Click image to enlarge
The Moody’s articles are obviously not talking about the Internet. They’re talking about the electric grid.
In a 1994 (yes, 1994) article published just as the Clinton administration (yes, Clinton) was developing principles for the deployment of the “information superhighway,” Jim wrote that if we want the far-reaching benefits foreseen by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (and they were amazingly prescient (but why can’t I find the report online??)), then we ought to learn four things from the deployment of the electric grid in the 1880s and 1890s:
First, the history of the electric power industry teaches that one cannot expect private profit-maximizing firms to provide “universal service” or anything like it in the early years (or decades) of their operations, when the allure of the most profitable markets is most compelling.
Second, the history of the electric power industry teaches that opening the doors to anyone willing to provide critical public services can be counterproductive and that it is essential to watch carefully the growth of private firms that enter the field. If such growth is left unchecked, the firms may become so large and complex that government institutions can no longer control or even understand them. Until government eventually catches up, the public may suffer incalculable injury.
Third, the history of the electric power industry teaches that monopolists will use all means available to influence the opinions of lawmakers and the public in their favor and will sometimes have frightening success
Fourth, and most important, the history of the electric power industry teaches that the presence or threat of competition from the public sector is one of the best and surest ways to secure quality service and reasonable prices from private enterprises involved in the delivery of critical public services.
Learn from history? Repeat it? Or intervene as citizens to get the history we want? I’ll take door number 3, please.
Google self-driving cars are presumably programmed to protect their passengers. So, when a traffic situation gets nasty, the car you’re in will take all the defensive actions it can to keep you safe.
But what will robot cars be programmed to do when there’s lots of them on the roads, and they’re networked with one another?
We know what we as individuals would like. My car should take as its Prime Directive: “Prevent my passengers from coming to harm.” But when the cars are networked, their Prime Directive well might be: “Minimize the amount of harm to humans overall.” And such a directive can lead a particular car to sacrifice its humans in order to keep the total carnage down. Asimov’s Three Rules of Robotics don’t provide enough guidance when the robots are in constant and instantaneous contact and have fragile human beings inside of them.
It’s easy to imagine cases. For example, a human unexpectedly darts into a busy street. The self-driving cars around it rapidly communicate and algorithmically devise a plan that saves the pedestrian at the price of causing two cars to engage in a Force 1 fender-bender and three cars to endure Force 2 minor collisions…but only if the car I happen to be in intentionally drives itself into a concrete piling, with a 95% chance of killing me. All other plans result in worse outcomes, where “worse” refers to some scale that weighs monetary damages, human injuries, and human deaths.
Or, a broken run-off pipe creates a dangerous pool of water on the highway during a flash storm. The self-driving cars agree that unless my car accelerates and rams into a concrete piling, all other joint action results in a tractor trailing jack-knifing, causing lots of death and destruction. Not to mention The Angelic Children’s Choir school bus that would be in harm’s way. So, the swarm of robotic cars makes the right decision and intentionally kills me.
In short, the networking of robotic cars will change the basic moral principles that guide their behavior. Non-networked cars are presumably programmed to be morally-blind individualists trying to save their passengers without thinking about others, but networked cars will probably be programmed to support some form of utilitarianism that tries to minimize the collective damage. And that’s probably what we’d want. Isn’t it?
But one of the problems with utilitarianism is that there turns out to be little agreement about what counts as a value and how much it counts. Is saving a pedestrian more important than saving a passenger? Is it always right try to preserve human life, no matter how unlikely it is that the action will succeed and no matter how many other injuries it is likely to result in? Should the car act as if its passenger has seat-belted him/herself in because passengers should do so? Should the cars be more willing to sacrifice the geriatric than the young, on the grounds that the young have more of a lifespan to lose? And won’t someone please think about the kids m— those cute choir kids?
We’re not good at making these decisions, or even at having rational conversations about them. Usually we don’t have to, or so we tell ourselves. For example, many of the rules that apply to us in public spaces, including roads, optimize for fairness: everyone waits at the same stop lights, and you don’t get to speed unless something is relevantly different about your trip: you are chasing a bad guy or are driving someone who urgently needs medical care.
But when we are better able control the circumstances, fairness isn’t always the best rule, especially in times of distress. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of consensus around the values that would enable us to make joint decisions. We fall back to fairness, or pretend that we can have it all. Or we leave it to experts, as with the rules that determine who gets organ transplants. It turns out we don’t even agree about whether it’s morally right to risk soldiers’ lives to rescue a captured comrade.
Fortunately, we don’t have to make these hard moral decisions. The people programming our robot cars will do it for us.
Imagine a time when the roadways are full of self-driving cars and trucks. There are some good reasons to think that that time is coming, and coming way sooner than we’d imagined.
Imagine that Google remains in the lead, and the bulk of the cars carry their brand. And assume that these cars are in networked communication with one another.
Can we assume that Google will support Networked Road Neutrality, so that all cars are subject to the same rules, and there is no discrimination based on contents, origin, destination, or purpose of the trip?
Or would Google let you pay a premium to take the “fast lane”? (For reasons of network optimization the fast lane probably wouldn’t actually be a designated lane but well might look much more like how frequencies are dynamically assigned in an age of “smart radios.”) We presumably would be ok with letting emergency vehicles go faster than the rest of the swarm, but how about letting the rich go faster by programming the robot cars to give way when a car with its “Move aside!” bit is on?
Let’s say Google supports a strict version of Networked Road Neutrality. But let’s assume that Google won’t be the only player in this field. Suppose Comcast starts to make cars, and programs them to get ahead of the cars that choose to play by the rules. Would Google cars take action to block the Comcast cars from switching lanes to gain a speed advantage — perhaps forming a cordon around them? Would that be legal? Would selling a virtual fast lane on a public roadway be legal in the first place? And who gets to decide? The FCC?
One thing is sure: It’ll be a golden age for lobbyists.
Here’s a fantastic 11-minute video from Vi Hart that explains Net Neutrality and more.
Categories: net neutrality
Tagged with: explainers
• net neutrality
Date: May 8th, 2014 dw
I wouldn’t have thought that Net Neutrality would be a particular rich vein for humor. But I was wrong. The Internet Must Die is a Colbert-style satire, with many of the heroes of the Open Internet in it.
A court yesterday heard arguments about whether the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules [pdf] should be permitted to stand. Harold Feld does his usual superlative job of explaining in depth.
, net neutrality
Tagged with: humor
• net neutrality
Date: September 10th, 2013 dw
The FCC’s Open Internet Advisory Committee’s 2013 Annual Report has been posted. The OIAC is a civilian group, headed by Jonathan Zittrain [twitter:zittrain] . The report is rich, but I want to point to one part that I found especially interesting: the section on “specialized services.”
Specialized services are interesting because when the FCC adopted the Open Internet Order (its “Net Neutrality” policy), it permitted the carriers to use their Internet-delivery infrastructure to provide some specific type of content or service to side of the Internet. As Harold Feld put it in 2009, in theory the introduction of “managed services”
allows services like telemedicine to get dedicated capacity without resorting to “tiering” that is anathema to network neutrality. In reality, is great new way for incumbents to privilege their own VOIP and video services over traffic of others.
The danger is that the providers will circumvent the requirement that they not discriminate in favor of their own content (or in favor of content from companies that pay them) by splintering off that content and calling it a a special service. (For better explanations, check Technoverse, Ars Technica, Commissioner Copps’ statement.)
So, a lot comes down to the definition of a “specialized service.” This Annual Report undertakes the challenge. The summary begins on page 9, and the full section begins on p. 66.
I won’t pretend to have the expertise to evaluate the definitions. But I do like the principles that guided the group:
Regulation should not create a perverse incentive for operators to move away from a converged IP infrastructure
A service should not be able to escape regulatory burden or acquire a burden by moving to IP
The Specialized Services group was led by David Clark, and manifests a concern for what Jonathan Zittrain calls “generativity“: it’s not enough to measure the number of bits going through a line to a person’s house; we also have to make sure that the user is able to do more with those bits than simply consume them.
I’m happy to see the Committee address the difficult issue of specialized services, and to do so with the clear intent of (a) not letting access to the open Internet be sacrificed, and(b) not allowing special services to be an end run around an open Internet.
Note: Jonathan Zittrain is my boss’ boss at the Harvard Law Library. I’ve known him through the Berkman Center for ten years before that.
Categories: net neutrality
Tagged with: fcc
• net neutrality
Date: August 21st, 2013 dw
Lots of good stuff as VP Gore answers questions mainly about climate change.
But there’s also this from him:
Our national information infrastructure is no longer competitive. We need to invest in more bandwidth, easier access, and the rapid transition of our democratic institutions to the internet. And we need to protect the freedom of the internet against corporate control by legacy businesses that see it as a threat, and against the obscene invasions of privacy and threats to security from government and corporations alike. Please think about this: almost everytime there has been a choice between privacy/security on the one hand and convenience on the other, the mass of folks have chosen convenience. I for one believe the “stalker economy” on the internet is undemocratic and anti- American. Are folks at the gag point on this yet? Thanks, btw, to the Reddit community for fighting off Sopa and PIPA. Keep your powder dry; more big struggles ahead.
F@#$ing Florida :(
According to TorrentFreak, a leaked AT&T training doc indicates that starting on Nov. 28, if a customer is flagged 4-5 times for copyright infringement [according to faceless algorithms], AT&T, Comcast, Cablevision, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon will block access to unspecified “popular sites” until the customer completes an””online education tutorial on copyright.”
No, there’s nothing even remotely Soviet about continuous surveillance that judges you via a bureaucracy without appeal, and punishes you by blocking access to information until you come back from re-education camp. Nothing Soviet at all, comrades!
I’m not a lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that if Net Neutrality means that access providers don’t get to block access to sites, then this grotesquely violates the FCC’s Net Neutrality guidelines.
Neelie Kroes, VP of the European Commission, has issued her statement on Net Neutrality. In my view, she correctly assesses the importance of Net Neutrality, but wrongly gauges the ability of a free market to deliver it. As a result, her policy is (in my view) seriously misguided. But so close!
When it comes to the issue of “net neutrality” I want to ensure that Internet users can always choose full Internet access – that is, access to a robust, best-efforts Internet with all the applications you wish.
I would have preferred a phrase about all apps and data delivered free of discrimination by the carriers. In any case, based on a new study by BEREC (European regulators’ body), she feels that now enough of the market has a choice of carriers that regulation is not needed.
As my friend JC de Martin wrote on a mailing list [slightly edited]:
I am afraid that this is a bad decision on at least four counts:
1. it overestimates the ability of the average consumers not only to obtain the relevant information, but also
to fully understand its implications;
2. it underestimates the very substantial pain of switching ISPs;
3. in rural areas, or smaller cities, the ISP offer is quite limited;
4. ISPs are not all equal: very soon European consumers will have to face a choice between a fast ISP with “limited Internet” and a slower ISP with “full Internet”: which one will they choose?
If access to an open Net is as important as Neelie believes it is, then it ought not be left up to the vagaries of the market to deliver it, and we ought not be complacent about a situation in which some people cannot afford access to it.
So close :(
Tagged with: neelie kroes
• net neutrality
Date: May 30th, 2012 dw
Neelie Kroes is becoming one of the open Internet’s most influential supporters.
Kroes is Vice President of the European Commission and is responsible for its “digital agenda.” At the Forum d’Avignon I was at (see here and here) she was just about the only person in a positon of power — economic or regulatory — to suggest that the Internet is actually a good thing for culture, and that we need new ways to think about copyright and distribution. Yesterday she gave a speech at the World Wide Web Conference in Lyon in which she called for new thinking to support an open Internet. Most importantly, she explicitly recognized that openness is indeed the property from which the rest of the Net’s value springs.
That a leader of the EC responsible for the “digital agenda” understands this shouldn’t be news. But it is. She even cites Yochai Benkler. Go Neelie!
Her talk begins by nailing its main point:
The best thing about the Internet is that it is open. Indeed it’s built on the idea that every device can talk to every other, using a common, open language. That’s what explains its seemingly endless growth.
Exactly right! Thank you, I’ll be here all week, drive safe, and God bless.
She goes on to explain the many benefits openness brings: “…choice and competition; innovation and opportunity; freedom and democratic accountability.” “Look at what we could do if we opened up our public sectors and put their data online.” She touts open standards. She points to political benefits: “And just look at what openness can do for freedom of speech. The Internet gives a voice to the powerless, and holds the powerful to account.”
Then she turns to the factors that impede openness:
Sometimes the problem is ancient, pre-digital rules that we need to cut back or make more flexible. Other times, openness actually flows from strengthening regulation.
She goes on to say that sometimes it’s about changing a “mindset,” not changing the rules. She says that we need an environment were different models are available and can compete. For example, some people want open discussions and some want moderated forums. We should have all types so people can choose. Likewise, we should have many different business models. People who want to be compensated monetarily for their deserve to be, although many are happy to give away what they’ve created. She says:
Look at the complicating licensing systems for copyrighted material here in Europe. These guarantee that Europeans miss out on great content, they discourage business innovation, and they fail to serve the creative people in whose name they were established.
After nodding to the need for security and privacy, she gets down to the infrastructure level:
…open competition, brought by the EU, has delivered for Europe. It offers consumers better deals and new, tailored services; market players new opportunities; and potential investors legal certainty.
She states her firm commitment to net neutrality. She is fine with having many market choices, including for cheaper plans that provide limited bandwidth, or access designed for specialized preferences. But, she says, there must always be truly open, neutral access, and she points to the BEREC study due in May that should tell us whether in Europe truly open access is being offered to everyone as an option.
Great speech, especially from a person in her position.
So, let me tell you my one concern. Kroes’ idea of openness means that the Net ecosystem should support the option for closed systems for those who want them: It needs to support copyright and it needs to support offerings from access providers that limit access. In theory there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem comes when you try to engineer an open system to support closed options. So, even the most crazed copyright supporter (let’s just call him, oh I don’t know, “Sarkozy”) is happy to let people give away their own content if they should be nutty enough to want to do so. But to support the “equal and opposite” option of being able to sell content, Sarkozy wants to rejigger the entire system to prevent “piracy.” If you want to offer the closed option with sufficient rigor to prevent all violations, the system would need to become closed. Kroes is certainly not advocating that closure, but the piece I feel is missing from her talk is the recognition that the value of openness surpasses the value that would come from a system engineered to so scrupulously protect IP. We have to accept some degree of risk for IP in order to have the openness that brings us the values Kroes is so eloquent about.
Likewise, I have no problem with access providers offering plans with data caps or that throttle bandwidth (assuming they’re transparent about it); that does not violate my idea of net neutrality. But there are conceivable plans for “specialist user needs” (as Kroes calls them) that would be discriminatory: A plan that gives priority to the delivery of movies (for example) would give those movie bits priority over the non-movie bits that other users of the Net care about. Personally, I think the best protection for the open Internet is structural separation: access providers sell you access — including tiered services — but are not allowed to sell either content or services that discriminate among bits. I don’t know where Kroes stands on this, but again I would have preferred a clear statement about it.
But now I’m just being greedy. Neelie Kroes is an Internet champion at time when we desperately need one.
In fact, Harold’s post is so long that I’m only half way through it, but I have to leave for a plane. In it he explains in some detail the history and ramifications of… well, here’s a taste from near the beginning:
…Verizon graciously offered to buy out Cox’s AWS spectrum so that Cox could get out of the wireless business. And, in what can only be an amazing coincidence for utterly independent agreements that should in no way make anyone think that the major cable players are colluding with their Telco/Wireless chief rival, Verizon and Spectrumco offered to let Cox in on the same three agreements to become exclusive resllers and become a member of the “Joint Operating Entity” (JOE) to develop all these cool new technologies.
So you see, it’s all totally innocent, and does not in the least look like a cartel agreeing not to compete, dividing up markets, and setting up a Joint Operating Entity so they can continue to meet and discuss their business plans on an ongoing basis while developing a patent portfolio to use against competitors like DISH and T-Mobile…
Harold Feld works for Public Knowledge, which works for an open Internet.
Categories: net neutrality
Tagged with: harold feld
• net neutrality
Date: March 22nd, 2012 dw
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