if (blocked($content))

And the fight rages on… Net Neutrality, to block or not to block.

Senator Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, is introducing new legislation to prevent service providers from blocking Internet content. Dorgan is not new to the arena, having put forth legislation in previous years dealing with the same thing. This time, however, he may be able to push it through.

So what’s different this time? Well, for one, we have a new president. And this new president has already stated that Net Neutrality is high on his list of technology related actions. So, at the very least, it appears that Dorgan has the president in his corner.

Of course, some service providers are not happy about this. Comcast has gone on record with the following:

“We don’t believe legislation is necessary in this area and could harm innovation and investments,” said Sena Fitzmaurice, Comcast’s senior director of government affairs and corporate communications, in a phone interview. “We have consistently said that all our customers have access to content available on the Internet.”

And she’s right! Well.. sort of. Comcast custmers do have access to content. Or, rather, they do now. I do recall a recent period of time where Comcast was “secretly” resetting bittorrent connections, and they have talked about both shaping and capping customers. So, in the end, you may get all of the content, just not all at the same level of service.

But I think, overall, Dorgan has an uphill battle. Net Neutrality is a concept not unlike free speech. It’s a great concept, but sometimes its implementation is questionable. For instance, If we look at pure Net Neutrality, then providers are required to allow all content without any shaping or blocking. Even bandwidth caps can be seen to fall under the umbrella of Net Neutrality. As a result, customers can theoretically use 100% of their alloted bandwidth at all times. This sounds great, until you realize that bandwidth, in some instances, and for perfectly legitimate reasons, is limited.

Take rural areas, for instance, especially in the midwest where homes can be miles away from each other. It can be cost-prohibitive for a service provider to run lines out to remote areas. And if they do, it’s generally done using line extender technology that can allow for decent voice signals over copper, but not high-speed bandwidth. One or two customer connections don’t justify the cost of the equipment. So, those customers are relegated to slower service, and may end up devices with high customer to bandwidth ratios. In those cases, a single customer can cause severe degradation of service for all the others, merely by using a lot of bandwidth.

On the flip side, however, allowing service providers to block and throttle according to their own whims can result in anti-competitive behavior. Take, for instance, IP Telephony. There are a number of IP Telephony providers out there that provide the technology to place calls over a local Internet connection. Skype and Vonage are two examples. Neither of these providers has any control over the local network, and thus their service is dependent on the local service provider. But let’s say the local provider wants to offer VoIP service. What’s to prevent that local provider from throttling or outright blocking Skype and Vonage? And thus we have a problem. Of course, you can fall back to the “let the market decide” argument. The problem with this is that, often, there is only one or two local providers, usually one Telco and one Cable. The Telco provider may throttle and block voice traffic, while the Cable provider does the same for video. Thus, the only choice is to determine which we would rather have blocked. Besides, changing local providers can be difficult as email addresses, phone numbers, etc. are usually tied to the existing provider. And on top of that, most people are just too lazy to change, they would rather complain.

My personal belief is that the content must be available and not throttled. However, I do believe the local provider should have some control over the network. So, for instance, if one type of traffic is eating up the majority of the bandwidth on the network, the provider should be able to throttle that traffic to some degree. However, they must make such throttling public, and they must throttle ALL of that type of traffic. Going back to the IP Telephony example, if they want to throttle Skype and Vonage, they need to throttle their own local VoIP too.

It’s a slippery slope and I’m not sure there is a perfect answer. Perhaps this new legislation will be a step in the right direction. Only time will tell.

H.R. 5994

What a title, eh?  Well, that little title up there may impact how you use the Internet in the future..  H.R. 5994, known as the “Internet Freedom and Non-Discrimination Act of 2008,” is the latest attempt by the US Congress to get a handle on Internet access.  In short, this is another play in the Net Neutrality battle.  I’m no lawyer, but it seems that this is a pretty straightforward document.

H.R. 5994 is intended to be an extension of the Clayton Anti-Trust Act of 1914.  It is intended to “promote competition, to facilitate trade, and to ensure competitive and nondiscriminatory access to the Internet.”  The main theme, as I see it, is that providers can’t discriminate against content providers.  In other words, if they prioritize web traffic on the network, then all web traffic, regardless of origin, should be prioritized.

At first glance, this seems to be a positive thing, however there may be a few loopholes.  For instance, take a look the following from Section 28(a):

“(3)(A) to block, to impair, to discriminate against, or to interfere with the ability of any person to use a broadband network service to access, to use, to send, to receive, or to offer lawful content, applications or services over the Internet;”

From the looks of it, it sounds like you can’t prevent known “bad users” from getting an account, provided they are using the account for legal purposes.  As an example, you couldn’t prevent a known spammer from getting an account, provided, of course, that they obey the CAN-SPAM Act.

And what about blocklists?  Spam blocklists are almost a necessity for mail servers these days, otherwise you have to process every single mail that comes in.  3(A) specifically dictates that you can’t block lawful content…  Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to determine if the mail is lawful until it’s processed.  So this may turn into a loophole for spammers.

The act goes on with the following:

“(4) to prohibit a user from attaching or using a device on the provider’s network that does not physically damage or materially degrade other users’ utilization of the network;”

This one is kind of scary because it does not dictate the type of device, or put any limitations on the capabilities of the device, provided it “does not physically damage or materially degrade other users’ utilization of the network.”  So does that mean I can use any type of DSL or Cable modem that I choose?  Am I considered to be damaging the network if I use a device that doesn’t allow the provider local access?  Seems to me that quite a few providers wouldn’t be happy with this particular clause…

Here’s the real meat of the Net Neutrality argument, though.  Section 28(b) states this:

“(b) If a broadband network provider prioritizes or offers enhanced quality of service to data of a particular type, it must prioritize or offer enhanced quality of service to all data of that type (regardless of the origin or ownership of such data) without imposing a surcharge or other consideration for such prioritization or enhanced quality of service.”

Wham!  Take that!  Basically, you can’t prioritize your own traffic at the expense of others.  So a local provider who offers a VoIP service can’t prioritize their own and not prioritize (or block) Skype, Vonage, or others.  But, there’s a problem here..  Does the service have to use established standards to be prioritized?  For instance, Skype uses a proprietary VoIP model.  So does that mean that providers do not have to prioritize it?

Providers do, however, get some rights as well.  For instance, Section 28 (c) specifically states:

    `(c) Nothing in this section shall be construed to prevent a broadband network provider from taking reasonable and nondiscriminatory measures–
    • `(1) to manage the functioning of its network, on a systemwide basis, provided that any such management function does not result in discrimination between content, applications, or services offered by the provider and unaffiliated provider;
    • `(2) to give priority to emergency communications;
    • `(3) to prevent a violation of a Federal or State law, or to comply with an order of a court to enforce such law;
    • `(4) to offer consumer protection services (such as parental controls), provided that a user may refuse or disable such services;
    • `(5) to offer special promotional pricing or other marketing initiatives; or
    • `(6) to prioritize or offer enhanced quality of service to all data of a particular type (regardless of the origin or ownership of such data) without imposing a surcharge or other consideration for such prioritization or quality of service.

So providers are allowed to protect the network, protect consumers, and still make a profit.  Of course, assuming this becomes law, only time will tell what the courts will allow a provider to consider “protection” to be…

It looks like this is, at the very least, a good start to tackling this issue.  That is, if you believe that the government should be involved with this.  At the same time, this doesn’t appear to be something most providers would be interested in.  From a consumer standpoint, I want to be able to get the content I want without being blocked because it comes from Google and not Yahoo, who the provider has an agreement with.  Since most consumers are in an area with only one or two providers, this can be a good thing, though.  It prevents a monopoly-type situation where the consumer has no choice but to take the less-than-desirable deal.

This is one of those areas where there may be no solution.  While I side with the providers in that they should be able to manage their network as they see fit, I can definitely see how something needs to be done to ensure that providers don’t take unfair advantage.  Should this become law, I think it will be a win for content providers rather than Internet providers and consumers.

Internet Toll Booths

Net Neutrality has been a hot topic for some time.  At the heart of the issue is a struggle to increase revenues by charging for content, as well as access.  The term “Net Neutrality” itself refers to the idea that the network should be neutral, or free.  A “free” network would have no access restrictions preventing a user from accessing the content they wanted.  Andrew Odlyzko, Director of the Digital Technology Center at the University of Minnesota, recently published a paper(PDF) concerning Net Neutrality.  He highlights the struggle between big business and market fairness, a struggle that has existed for a very long time.

Think back to the early days of the Internet when providers charged for access by either a transfer or time limit.  This practice gradually gave way to unlimited access for a flat monthly fee.  In more recent times, reports have surfaced about providers who are limiting the total amount of traffic a user can transfer per month.  While providers aren’t coming out and saying it, they have seemingly reverted back to the pay-per-meg days of old.

More concerning, perhaps, is the new practice of throttling specific traffic.  While this seems to be centered around BitTorrent and Peer-to-Peer traffic at the moment, what’s to prevent a provider from throttling site-specific traffic.  In fact, what’s to prevent the provider from creating “Walled Gardens” and charging the end user for access to “extra” content not included in the garden?

Apparently nothing, as some companies have already been doing this, and others have announced plans to.  More recently, the FCC has decided to step in and look into the allegations of data tampering.  Of course, the FCC seems to have problems of it’s own at the moment.

So what is the ultimate answer to this question?  Should the ISP have the right to block and even tamper with data?  Should the end-user have the right to free access to the Internet?  These are tough questions, ones that have been heavily debated for some time, and will likely be debated far into the future.

For myself, my opinion is based on being both a subscriber, as well as an engineer for a service provider.  The provider has built the infrastructure used to access the Internet.  Granted, the funds used to build that infrastructure were provided by the subscribers, but the end result is the same.  The infrastructure is owned by the provider.  As with most property, the owner is generally free to do what they want with it, though this can be a pretty hotly debated topic as well, and perhaps a discussion for a later date.

For now, let’s assume that the owner has the right to modify and use what they own with the only limits being those laws that protect safety.  In other words, I am free to dictate the rules in my own hotel.  Kids can only play in the play room, drinks and food are only allowed in the dining room, and no-one walks through the hall without shoes on.  I will only provide cable TV with CNN and the weather channel, and the pool is only open from 1pm to 5pm on weekdays.  As a hotel owner, I can set these rules, and enforce them by having any guest who violates them removed.  That is my right as a hotel owner.  Of course, if the guests don’t like my rules, they are free to stay at another hotel.

How is this different from an ISP?  An ISP can set the rules however they want, and the subscriber can vote on those rules through the use of their wallet.  Don’t like the rules?  Cancel your subscription and go elsewhere.

Of course, this brings up a major problem with the current state of Internet access.  Unfortunately, there are many areas, even heavily populated ones, where there is no other provider to go to.  In some cases there is a telephone company to provide access, but no alternative such as cable.  In others, cable exists, but the phone company doesn’t have high-speed access yet.  And, in the grand tradition of greed and power, the providers in those areas are able to charge whatever rates they want (with some limitations, as set by the government), and allow or block access in any manner they wish.  And since there are no alternatives, the subscriber is stuck with service they don’t want at a rate they don’t want to pay.

So, my view is somewhat convoluted by the fact that competition between providers is non-existent in some areas.  Many subscribers are stuck with the local carrier and have no choice.  And while I believe that the provider should be able to run their network as they choose, it muddies the waters somewhat because the subscriber cannot vote with their wallet unless they are willing to go without access.

I don’t find the idea of a “walled garden” as that much of a problem, per se.  Look at AOL, for instance.  They flourished for a long time and they were a perfect example of a walled garden at the beginning.  More recent times have led to them allowing full Internet access, but the core AOL client still exists and allows them to feed specific content to the customer.  If providers were willing to lower rates and provide interfaces such as AOLs, I can easily see some users jumping at the opportunity.  Likewise, I see users, such as myself, who are willing to pay a premium for unadulterated access to the Internet.

My hope is that the Internet remains unmolested and open to those who want access.  We can only wait and see what will happen in the end.