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2006-06-26, 18:06
Let us clarify our choice of words. The original term of use when I was first exposed to the idea by Lawrence Lessig in a Wired magazine article, was "network neutrality". The popular term used now is "net neutrality". The new term is advantageous because it implies both "network neutrality" and "internet neutrality".

A search on THOMAS using the terms "net neutrality" indicates that there are two new bills which have been introduced in the U. S. Congress on the topic. The one introduced in the House of Representatives 2006-05-02 is the Network Neutrality Act of 2006, 109th Congress H. R. 5273 (http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c109:H.R.5273:). The one introduced in the Senate 2006-05-19 is the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, 109th Congress S. 2917 (http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c109:S.2917:).

While supporting the principle of network neutrality, I had some reluctance at first in supporting the legislation of it and having the government getting involved in the affairs of the internet and possibly reducing its freedom. The history of governments getting involved in the internet is not good, with Holocaust Denial being a crime in Europe, pornography being a crime in Sharia Muslim countries, speaking out against the government being a crime in repressive countries like China, and "intellectual property" violations in countries which worship corporations such as the United States, where the Digital Millennium Copyright Act allows for internet censorship.

After reading a great article dated 2006-06-21 by Tim Berners-Lee titled Net Neutrality: This is serious (http://dig.csail.mit.edu/breadcrumbs/node/144), I became convinced that net neutrality must be enforced by law rather than through market forces.

There are cases and needs for government intervention in the internet in order to preserve freedom. If the government had no involvement then it would be a place of anarchy. The government already is involved in the internet with ICANN setting internet policy, and with the 13 DNS root nameservers being run by the government, organizations, or universities. The original internet was built by the U. S. government and was called ARPANET.

Legislating net neutrality is a move which benefits and protects consumers. There are many such laws which do that already. When you buy 10 gallons of gas at the gas station, you have confidence that you are really getting what you paid for because the government enforces the accuracy of the pump and the accuracy of the scales at supermarkets.

Ed Whitacre, the CEO of AT&T said:

"Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ainít going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So thereís going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion theyíre using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes? The Internet canít be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes free is nuts!"

There the greed can be seen in his words. He wants to charge twice for people to have internet access. If it weren't for Google, Yahoo or filesharing, many wouldn't find the internet so appealing. So he ought to be grateful for the business that he has rather than to expect people not to actually use their internet connection. Perhaps he views customers paying for access to the internet as similar to customers paying for an insurance which should not be used except for emergencies. What is Whitacre thinking to call the AT&T network "my pipes"? Anyone who has good business ethics knows that "the customer is always right" and those pipes belong ultimately to the customers, not to him.

I am sure that many who would like to see the government avoid legislating net neutrality would change their minds about government involvement in the internet if the ownership of an ISP changed hands. Let us just imagine that instead of having an all-American guy like Whitacre running AT&T, that the Chinese government or a wealthy Saudi Arabian oil baron were to take over the company and start enforcing censorship as per orders from the homeland. You know that just about everyone would want the government to get involved at that point, to preserve the freedom of the AT&T customers, rather than leaving it to the "free market" to sort out the issues.

And this issue of net neutrality is really no different from issues of censorship. Prioritizing of packets or port blocking of users is hardly different from censors blocking a particular site because of its offending content.

The advocates of net neutrality know the limits of their proposals. For example in this paper by Daniel Weitzner dated 2006-06-20 titled The Neutral Internet: An Information Architecture for Open Societies (http://dig.csail.mit.edu/2006/06/neutralnet.html), he says in the end section that the principle of net neutrality wouldn't apply to the internal networks of companies which do not connect to the internet. This is his comment about IPTV:

"Several telephone and cable TV companies plan to offer television service over IPTV networks. IPTV uses the Internet protocol to carry television images. In these cases it appears that the IP protocol was chosen for its network engineering efficiencies, and because it is a well-known protocol. As with the VOIP example above, the networks carrying IPTV signals may be entirely disconnected from the Internet. Though the data packets look just like those that flow across the Internet, these IPTV packets will remain restricted to the companies' private networks.

Should IPTV network operators be required to offer non-discriminatory access to this IP service, even though it is not connected to the Internet? Given the seeming lack of impact on the Internet, I do not see that extension of Internet Neutrality principles to the cable television market is necessary, absent other competitive dynamics."

And advocates of net neutrality are not opposed to the idea of a tiered service, where people pay more for faster speeds. From the Senate bill S. 2197 is an example of that:

"Nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit a broadband service provider from engaging in any activity, provided that such activity is not inconsistent with the requirements of subsection (a), including--
(2) offering directly to each user broadband service that does not distinguish based on the source or ownership of content, application, or service, at different prices based on defined levels of bandwidth or the actual quantity of data flow over a user's connection;"

These exceptions worry me a little because they could become loopholes. ISPs could crack down on their heaviest users without violating the principle of network neutrality by developing a pricing plan that may allow for a certain amount of bandwidth per month, and charging extra for those who go over it. If it is okay with net neutrality advocates for an ISP to charge for bandwidth used, then would it be okay if the ISP were to start charging for the distance of websites visited, the way phone calls are more expensive when they are long distance? It costs the ISP more when you visit far away sites or transfer traffic from those points. This net neutrality legislation has been proposed in the spirit of the 1934 telecommunications law, to extend the principle of network neutrality from the telephone network to the internet. So it would not be inconceivable or out of line if ISPs were to start behaving like telcos by charging more for visiting long distance websites. Such a thing would be ill-advised, undesirable, and unpopular, but it would not violate the proposed legislation of net neutrality. Legislation of net neutrality only demands that ISPs not discriminate based on "content". I worry that there is not much difference between discrimination based on geography and location, and discrimination based on content. That is why I think I think the legislation of net neutrality should also explicitly ban an ISP from charging based on the distance of a site visited, blocking certain geographical regions or IP ranges, or charging more for traffic overseas. Though no ISP that I know of charges people in this manner, discriminating by way of geography or IP ranges could be a loophole for the ISP to adhere to the law without explicitly discriminating by content.

The notion of freedom on the internet is not absolute, but relative. An ISP plan that does not meter your bandwidth is more free than one that has you worry about going over the limits. Some cable companies reduce the bandwidth of their heaviest users, but that doesn't happen much for DSL users. There is a prior thread on this site here discussing the pros and cons of cable versus DSL for filesharers:
cable versus DSL: who is benevolent towards p2p? (http://www.3-3-3.org/forum/showthread.php?t=806) 2004-11-24

The blocking of certain ports would bring about suspicion that the company is trying to block a service. For example if port 6881 were blocked, that would lead to the suggestion that the ISP is trying to block BitTorrent services. I recall that when I had Verizon DSL, that the only port they blocked was port 80. I called them for an explanation and the reason they gave was that they wanted to block the Code Red worm (http://www.cert.org/advisories/CA-2001-19.html) from spreading. Yet perhaps the real reason was that they wanted to prevent people from running http websites on their own computers, which would cause Verizon to get less business from their Verizon web hosting services. The latter reason is prohibited under the principle of net neutrality, yet Verizon may just get away with blocking port 80 by using the "Code Red" excuse. Some ISPs have also been blocking port 25 with the reason given that they are preventing spam, but it also makes it harder for users to run email services from their home computers.