Internet “Censorship,” part 2 — Google, Verizon, and Net Neutrality

[Update: AARGH. Mea culpa -- I had been working on some documents regarding the VIACOM -Google lawsuit, and then I started work on this posting about the VERIZON-Google announcement about "net neutrality," and so my initial posting erroneously talked all about the "Google-Viacom announcement," as many of the commenters pointed out ... My apologies for the confusion!]

I have been reluctant to jump into the fray here, because — well, because “net neutrality” is a really complicated subject, and because I’m on vacation, and I’d sure rather go for a bike ride, or lay down some more tunes, or head down to the pond, or . . . rather than sort through the sense and nonsense being written in light of the Google-Verizon announcement. But there is so much nonsense piling up out there, that I feel as though it’s worth adding a small note to the debate.

First of all, if you’re interested in the issue — and you should be, because important principles are at stake, and because the Internet is a public resource of immense value and unimaginable potential value, and because the debate over “net neutrality” implicates both these principles and the future of that public resource — and are trying to think through the implications of the recent Google-Verizon announcement, start here (the announcement itself) and then go here (Larry Downes’ excellent summary/discussion of what the proposal actually says, as opposed to hysterical pronouncements about what it might mean for the future of humankind). Although you would think, from much of the public discussion (see the articles in today’s New York Times), that Google and Verizon have cut a deal to chop up the Internet into small pieces and feed it into the fire, or at least that Verizon has agreed, for a fee, to disable all searches using any search engine other than Google, or that the two companies have cut some sort of a deal to give traffic from the other some sort of preferential treatment — the reality is otherwise; the proposal is simply an outline for a legislative/regulatory framework that attempts to jumpstart the contentious and largely moribund process that the FCC had already begun, months ago, and which has been mired in disagreement and controversy. And, again as Downes points out, the proposals themselves aren’t really that far away from (a) what the companies had already said in those FCC proceedings, or (b) the FCC’s own stated position(s) on the matter.

As to the substance of the proposal, here’s the underlying problem, in a nutshell. “Net neutrality” is a wonderful thing – at least if you’re careful to define what you mean by “net neutrality.” What I mean by net neutrality is equivalent to the concept of “end-to-end design” that has been part of the Internet’s architecture since its inception. I’m a believer — indeed, I’m a religious zealot — when it comes to e2e design; if you want to know the details, read my book. E2E means, simply, that the network itself does virtually nothing besides transporting bits from one place to another, leaving all processing to take place at the “ends.” E2E has “non-discrimination” built into it; the network can’t discriminate among the different packets of data (to put those originating from Bill Gates’ machine, or from Verizon premium subscribers, or from Google users, at the head of the transport queue, for instance) because to do that it would have to analyze the packet (to figure out where it came from), and that violates the E2E principle.

End-to-end is a principle of profound significance; it is one of the more important reasons that the TCP/IP network became “the Internet” — i.e., why this particular network grew as fast as it did and took over the world. E2E allows the network to focus on a single task — moving bits as quickly as possible. E2E allows anyone on the network to deploy an application that will run over the network; innovation, on an E2E network, can come from anywhere, without requiring any re-engineering of the network itself (because the network doesn’t care what the bits “mean” or what they contain, it’s just moving them from place to place). Losing the E2E inter-network would be, in my opinion, a catastrophic development.

So I’m all for “net neutrality.” The problem is that there are many things an E2E inter-network (like the one we have) can’t do that people want their inter-network to do and would pay to have it do, and businesses serving those people want to provide those things. Things like guaranteed delivery of packets; the E2E network can’t promise that your packet will arrive at its destination, because that would require the network to keep track of your transmission as it moves along, and that’s the sort of processing that E2E says the network shouldn’t do. Things like extra-high-speed transmission for certain packets (those with the “premium” label attached); the E2E network can’t do that, either, because that requires network processing (to determine whether a packet is a “premium” packet and should advance to the head of the queue). Things like a virus-free network — the E2E network can’t give you that because it doesn’t “scan” packets for viruses as it moves them along; you’ll have to worry about that for yourself (running an anti-virus application, for instance, at your “end”).

The problem then boils down to: is there a way to preserve the E2E network — the open, nondiscriminatory inter-network – while simultaneously allowing people to get the services they want? Now in fact, that’s not exactly the question, because we know the answer to that one. There are already thousands, hundreds and hundreds of thousands, of non-E2E networks that do lots and lots of internal processing and provide lots and lots of services the E2E Internet does not provide. Your cell phone provider’s network, for instance. Most corporate wide area networks, for instance. Obviously, if Verizon wants to build a separate network and offer all sorts of glorious services on it, it can do so. The real net neutrality problem is this: if Verizon uses the Internet’s infrastucture to provide those services, will that somehow degrade the performance of the E2E Internet or somehow jeopardize its existence? Put another way: if Verizon can figure out a way to provide additional services to some of its subscribers using the Internet infrastructure in a way that does not compromise the traffic over the E2E inter-network, why should we want to stop them from doing that?

There are, at the core here, some difficult questions of engineering, questions I’m not capable of answering or evaluating. If the answer is: “That can never be done; it is impossible to use the Internet’s pipes and routers and all the rest for any sort of “discriminatory” services without harming the E2E Internet” then I might be inclined to side with those who want to ban such services in the name of net neutrality. I’m not confident, though, that that is indeed the answer, in part because technological innovation can do things that I usually cannot foresee. A world in which the open, nondiscriminatory, E2E Internet is alive and well, and in which some users can obtain additional services that they want, is a better world than the one where such additional services are forbidden. The Google/Verizon proposal seems to take a fairly reasonable middle ground on this central question. Here are the relevant provisions:

“Non-Discrimination Requirement: In providing broadband Internet access service, a provider would be prohibited from engaging in undue discrimination against any lawful Internet content, application, or service in a manner that causes meaningful harm to competition or to users. Prioritization of Internet traffic would be presumed inconsistent with the non-discrimination standard, but the presumption could be rebutted. . . .

Additional Online Services: A provider that offers a broadband Internet access service complying with the above principles could offer any other additional or differentiated services. Such other services would have to be distinguishable in scope and purpose from broadband Internet access service, but could make use of or access Internet content, applications or services and could include traffic prioritization. The FCC would publish an annual report on the effect of these additional services, and immediately report if it finds at any time that these services threaten the meaningful availability of broadband Internet access services or have been devised or promoted in a manner designed to evade these consumer protections.

So it’s a presumption of harm, and FCC oversight to see the extent to which harm is occurring. I’m not at all sure that’s the optimal solution to the problem — but its not an outrageous attack on the viability of the Internet, or the death of the Internet as we know it, or anything else it’s being called (including by people who should know better).