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Thursday, July 13, 2017

Both sides are wrong in the Net Neutrality debate

I've been watching the ongoing shouting-match about Net Neutrality (in the US & Europe) with increasing exasperation. Recently there was a "day of action" by pro-neutrality activists, which raised the temperature yet further.

The problem? Pretty much everyone, on both sides (and on both sides of the Atlantic), is dead wrong a good % of the time. They're not necessarily wrong on the same things, but overall the signal-to-noise ratio on NN is very poor.

There are countless logical fallacies perpetrated by lobbyists and commentators of all stripes: strawman arguments, false dichotomies, tu-quoque, appeals to authority and all the rest. (This is a great list of fallacies, by the way. Everyone should read it). 

Everyone's analogies are useless too - networks aren't pipes, or dumb. Packets don't behave like fluids. Or cars on a road. There are no "senders". It's not like physical distribution or logistics. Even the word "neutrality" is dubious as a metaphor. The worst of all is "level playing field". Anyone using it is being duplicitous, ignorant, or probably both. (See this link).

I receive lots of exhortations from both sides - I get well-considered, but too-narrow network-science commentary & Twitter debates from friend & colleague Martin Geddes. I read detailed and learned regulatory snark and insider stories from John Strand. I see telco/vendor CEOs speaking (OK, grandstanding) at policy conferences. I get reports of egregious telco- and state-based blocking of certain Internet services from Access Now, EFF and elsewhere. I see VCs and investors lining up on both sides, depending on whether they have web interests, or network vendor/processing positions. I watch comments from the FCC, Ofcom, EU Commission, BEREC, TRAI and others - as well as politicians. And I read an absolute ton of skewed & partial soundbites from lobbyists on Twitter or assorted articles/papers.

And I see the same, tired - often fallacious or irrelevant - arguments trotted out again and again. Let me go through some of the common ones:
  • Some network purists insist routers & IP itself are (at core) non-neutral, because there are always vagaries & choices in how the internals, such as buffers, are configured. They try to use this to invalidate the whole NN concept, or claim that the Internet is broken/obsolete and needs to be replaced. Other Internet purists insist that the original "end-to-end" principle was to get as close as possible to "equal treatment" for packets, and either don't recognise the maths - or suggest that the qualitative description should be treated as a goal, even if the precise mechanisms involve some fudges. Everyone is wrong.
  • In the US, the current mechanism for NN was to incorporate it under the FCC's Title II rules. That was a clunky workaround, after an earlier NN ruling was challenged by Verizon in 2011. In many ways, the original version was a much cleaner way to do it, as it risked less regulatory creep. Everyone is wrong.
  • Many people talk about prioritisation of certain traffic (eg movies) and how that could either (a) allow innovative business models, or (b) disenfranchise startups unable to match web giants' payments. Yet the technology doesn't work properly (and won't), it's almost impossible to price/market/sell/manage in practice, and there is no demand. Conspicuously, there have been no lobbyists demanding the right to pay for priority. There is no market for it, and it won't work. It's irrelevant. Everyone is wrong.
  • Some people assert that NN will reduce "investment" in networks, as it will preclude innovation. Others assert that NN increases overall investment (on networks plus servers/apps/devices). When I tried to quantify the possible revenues from 25 suggested non-neutral business models (link), I concluded the incremental revenue would barely cover the extra costs of implementation, if that. There are many reasons for investments in networks (eg 4G then 5G deployment cycles), while we also see CapEx being replaced by OpEx or software licences for managed or virtual networks. Drawing meaningful correlations is hard enough, let alone causation from an individual issue out of dozens. Everyone is wrong.
  • Most of the debate seems to centre on content - notably video streaming. This ties in with operators wanting to bundle TV and related programming, or Netflix and YouTube seen as dominating Internet traffic and therefore being pivot-points for neutrality. Yet in most markets, IPTV is not delivered via the public Internet anyway, and is considered OK to prioritise as it's a basic service. On the opposite side, upgrades to high-speed consumer broadband is partly driven by the desire for streaming video - revenues would fall if it was blocked, while efforts to charge extra fees to Netflix and co would likely backfire - they'd insist on opposite fees to be carried, like TV channels. Meanwhile, most of the value in the Internet doesn't come from content, but from applications, communications, cloud services and data transmission. However, they are all much techier, so get mostly overlooked by lobbyists and politicians entranced by Hollywood, Netflix or the TV channels. Everyone is wrong.
  • Lots of irrelevant comments on all sides about CDNs or paid-peering being examples of prioritisation (or of craven content companies paying for special favours). Fascinating area, but irrelevant to discussion about access-network ISPs. Everyone is wrong.
  • Lots of discussion about zero-rating or "sponsored data" paid for by 3rd-parties and whether they are right/wrong/distortions. Lots of debate whether they have to be offered to all music / video streaming services, whether they should just be promotional or can be permanent. And so on. Neither relate to treatment of data transmission by the network - and differential treatment of pricing is, like CDNs, interesting but irrelevant to NN. And sponsored data models don't work technically or commercially, with a handful of minor exceptions. Ignore silly analogies to 1-800 phone numbers - they are totally flawed comparisons (see my 2014 rant here). Upshot: zero-rating isn't an NN issue, and sponsored data (with prioritisation or not) doesn't work (for at least 10 reasons). Everyone is wrong.
  • Almost everyone in the US and Europe regulatory scene now agrees that outright blocking of certain services (eg VoIP) or trying to force specific application/web providers to pay an "access" toll fee is both undesirable or unworkable. It would just drive use of VPNs (which ISPs would block at their peril), or amusingly could mean that Telco1.com could legally block the website of Telco2.com, which would make make future marketing campaigns a lot of fun. In other words, it's not going to happen, except maybe for special cases such as childrens' use, or on planes. It's undesirable, regulatorily unacceptable, easy to spot and impossible anyway. Forget about it. Everyone is wrong.
  • Lots of discussion about paid-for premium QoS on broadband, and whether or not it should apply to IoT, 5G, NFV/SDN, network-slicing, general developer-facing APIs and therefore allow different classes of service to be created, and winners/losers to be based on economic firepower. Leaving aside enterprise-grade MPLS and VPN services (where this is both permissible and possible), there's a lot of nonsense talked here. For consumer fixed broadband, many of the quality issues relate to in-home wiring and WiFi interference, for which ISP-provided QoS is irrelevant. For mobile, the radio environment is inherently unpredictable (concrete walls, sudden crowds of people, interference etc). Better packet scheduling can tilt the odds a bit, but forget about hard SLAs or even predictability. Coverage is far more a limiting factor. Dealing with 800 ISPs around the world with different systems/pricing is impossible. The whole area is a non-starter: bigger web companies know how much of a minefield this is, and smaller ones don't care. Everyone is wrong.
In summary - nearly anyone weighing in on Net Neutrality, on either side, is talking nonsense a good % of the time. (And yes, probably me too - I'm sure people will pick holes in a couple of things here).

So what's the answer?
  • First, tone down the rhetoric on both sides. The whole thing is a cacaphony of nonsense, mostly from lobbyists representing two opposing cheeks of the same arse. Acknowledge the hyperbole. Get some reputable fact-checkers involved, and maybe sponsored by government and/or crowdsourcing.
  • Second, recognise that many of the threatened non-neutral models are either impossible or obviously unprofitable. Arguing about them is sophistry and a waste of everyone's time. There are more important things at stake.
  • Thirdly, design and create proper field-trials to try to prove/disprove assertions about innovation, cost structures etc. Select a state, a city or a class of users, or speciallly-licensed ISPs to run prototypes and actually get some proper data. Don't try to change anything on a national or international basis overnight, no matter how many theoretical "studies" have been done. Create a space for operators and developers to try out creating "specialised services", see if they work, and see what happens to everything else. Then develop policy based on evidence - and yes, you'll have to wait a few years. You should have done it sooner instead of arguing. I suspect it'll prove my point 2 above, anyway
  • Fourth, consider "inevitabilities" (see this link for discussion). VPNs will get more common. NFV and edge-computing will get more common. Multiple connections will get more common. New networks (eg private cellular, LPWAN) will get more common. Multi-hop connections with WiFi and ZigBee & meshes will get more common. Devices & applications will fragment, cloudify, become "serverless", being componentised with micro-services, and be harder to decode and classify in the network. AI will get more common, to "game" the network policies, as well as help manage the infrastructure. All this changes the landscape for NN over the next couple of years, so we'll end up debating it all again. Think about these things (and others) now.
  • Six, try some rules on branding Internet / other access. Maybe allow specialised services, but force them to be sold separately from Internet access, and called something else (Ain'ternet? I Can't Believe it's Not Internet?)
  • Seven, get ISP executives (and maybe web/content companies' execs too) to make a public promise about acting in consumers' interests on Internet matters, as I suggested a few years ago - an IPocratic Oath. (link)
  • Eight, train and empower the judiciary to be able to understand, collect data and adjudicate quickly on Internet-related issues. It may be that competition law could be applied, or injunctions granted, even in the absence of hard NN laws. Let's get 24x7 overnight Internet courts able to take an initial view on permissibility of traffic management - not wait 2 years and appeals during which time an app-developer slowly dies.
  • Nine, let's get more accountability on traffic-management and network configurations, so that neutrality/competition law can be applied at a later date anyway. We already have rules on data-retention for customer calls & access to networks. Let's have all internal network configuration & operational data in ISPs' networks securely captured, encrypted, held in escrow and available to prosecutors if needed, under warrant. A blockchain use-case, perhaps? We're going to need that data anyway, to guarantee that customer data hasn't been tampered with by the network. 
  • Ten, ask software (and content and IoT device and cloud) developers what they actually want from the networks. Most seem to be absent from the debate - the forgotten stakeholders. Understand how important "permissionless innovation" actually is. Query whether they care about network QoS, or understand how it links to overall QoS which covers everything from servers to displays to device chipsets to user-interfaces. Find out how they deal with network glitches, dodgy coverage - and whether "fallback" strategies mean that the primary network is getting more or less important. Do they want better networks, are they prepared to pay for them - or would they just rather have better visibility and predictability of when problems are likely to occur?
Apologies for the length of this piece. I'll happily pay someone 0.0000001c for it to load faster, as long as the transaction cost is less than 5% of that.

Get in touch with me at information AT disruptive-analysis dot com if you'd like to discuss it more, or have a sane discussion about Neutrality and what it really means for broadband, policy, 5G, network slicing, IoT and all the rest.


Unknown said...

Surprise! I have the solution! And it takes us(U.S.) from 27th to 1st!

Anonymous said...

Those who can't, become analysts.

Anonymous said...

Increase the contrast of your fonts. The page is hard to read.

Sascha A. Carlin said...

Hey Dean

I do not follow NN discussion in close detail. From my point of view (EU, Germany, post right-to-be-forgotten, post-gogole-snippets-law) NN sound like yet another try of old-business-media to "generate" revenue.

That about right?


Unknown said...

Allegations, assertions and assumptions do not an arguement make. If I distill out the baffle-gab and tech-noise from your post, I'm left with an appeal to trust ISP executives (mostly self-interested liars) and vapor-committees collecting data and running trials of unknown content using untried protocols.
Oh,and an unsettling whiff of "you own the only truth in town". No, thanks.

Sean said...

Some distillation was necessary, sure. It seems par for the course for bloggers to flex jargon in their posts though right? (especially in this area). The Everyone is wrong seemed a bit strident but the author's tone is certainly his to decide.

I found answers three, four, and ten were particularly interesting.

Thanks Dean

Rang said...

I agree with you. The supporters on both sides have to understand the whole issue before pointing fingers at each other. I came across an interesting article on Spectrum’s stance on the whole net neutrality debate and the fresh take helped me gain some new perspective.
If any one of you want to read it, here is a link to the article:

I am all for net neutrality, but any debate requires critical thinking, which in turn needs knowledge of both sides of the argument. If we do not listen to what other side have to say, or what is possible, we are just being irrational. And an irrational argument is just noise, which will only hinder sound conversation rather than contribute anything valuable.

InfoStack said...

I'm surprised you didn't go back to the origins of NN. In my opinion NN is a contrived and farcical notion. What scaled the web/internet in the US was equal access in voice networks from the 1980s. Equal access was killed off because the Telecom Act of 96 actually hurt competition because of its asymmetrical nature and inability to deal with USF and access charge rebalancing. Tim Wu saw the handwriting on the wall and reinvented equal access under different guise and one suitable to protect the internet crowd. But it accomplished nothing.

Steve Jobs resurrected equal access in 2007 with the iPhone. So in a sense you are correct, the NN debate is nonsensical, but for a much simpler reason.

The way I see it is that both sides are right and wrong. We need interconnection as far out to the edge and down in the stack as possible AND we need 2-sided or balanced settlements between actors to provide incentives (and disincentives). The fact is that neither the core (OTT/App/Content) siloed platforms nor the vertically integrated edge access provider models are sustainable. The former need rapid deployment of advanced tech at the edge and the latter need a better way for supply to be matched with demand. They actually need to work together.
Michael, NYC