Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Robert Graham’s Bad Take on Net Neutrality

Robert Graham of Errata Security reacts to an op-ed by Barbara van Schewick; van Schewick claims that the FCC has “always defended net neutrality”:

This wrong on its face. It imagines decades ago that the FCC inshrined some plaque on the wall stating principles that subsequent FCC commissioners have diligently followed. The opposite is true. FCC commissioners are a chaotic bunch, with different interests, influenced (i.e. “lobbied” or “bribed”) by different telecommunications/Internet companies. Rather than following a principle, their Internet regulatory actions have been ad hoc and arbitrary — for decades.

This is absolutely a fair take by Graham: the FCC has, indeed, failed to uphold net neutrality provisions in the past and is currently doing so, as he points out in a following paragraph:

There are gross violations going on right now that the FCC is allowing. Most egregiously is the “zero-rating” of video traffic on T-Mobile. This is a clear violation of the principles of net neutrality, yet the FCC is allowing it — despite official “net neutrality” rules in place.

Under the previous FCC administration, AT&T and Verizon were warned to cease similar zero-rating practices, and an investigation was being conducted. That is, until Ajit Pai and this FCC administration shut those investigations down and retracted their warnings. So, yeah, the FCC is currently failing to uphold net neutrality regulations, but that’s because it’s run by a cable-chummy chairman.

This is where Graham goes off the rails:

More concretely, from the beginning of the Internet as we know it (the 1990s), CDNs (content delivery networks) have provided a fast-lane for customers willing to pay for it. These CDNs are so important that the Internet wouldn’t work without them.

I just traced the route of my CNN live stream. It comes from a server 5 miles away, instead of CNN’s headquarters 2500 miles away. That server is located inside Comcast’s network, because CNN pays Comcast a lot of money to get a fast-lane to Comcast’s customers.

The reason these egregious net net violations exist is because it’s in the interests of customers. Moving content closer to customers helps. Re-prioritizing (and charging less for) high-bandwidth video over cell networks helps customers.

There’s so much amiss here that it beggars belief, especially coming from someone as technologically-knowledgable as Graham.

CDNs are absolutely a critical piece of the infrastructure of the modern web. They are what allow us to reliably stream video or access media-rich web applications around the world. But they are not inherently tied to ISPs like Comcast, nor are they a paid-for “fast lane” that violates the spirit of net neutrality.

I just launched one of CNN’s streaming videos, and it was being served from a server owned by Akamai. Akamai is a private company that CNN has its own contract with; my ISP, Shaw, provides the dumb pipe between my computer and — through some switching boxes and big fibre optic cables — Akamai’s servers. But Shaw does not have its own special contract with Akamai to serve that video any faster or slower than it would be if it were served from, say, Cloudflare. They can’t: I live in Canada, and such an arrangement is illegal here.

Moreover, the idea that CDNs somehow infringe upon net neutrality provisions is complete nonsense. Net neutrality is a set of rules that requires internet service providers to treat all traffic passing through their network identically, without prioritizing some data or blocking others. CDNs are a way for website owners to host their media in multiple places around the world. They’re completely different fields.

And, to his last point in that quote, Graham is right that being able to serve video over mobile networks more reliably and for less money is good for consumers. That’s why ISPs — fixed or mobile — should be competing on reliability, speed, and price, not gimmicks or special offers. That’s what happened after T-Mobile introduced their ostensibly unlimited plan last year.

You might say it’s okay that the FCC bends net neutrality rules when it benefits consumers, but that’s garbage. Net neutrality claims these principles are sacred and should never be violated. Obviously, that’s not true — they should be violated when it benefits consumers.

As explained above, this argument is nonsense. Net neutrality rules do not get in the way of consumer benefits. They simply make it so that ISPs are treated as the dumb pipes that they are, and require them to compete on tangible consumer benefits like pricing and speed.

This means what net neutrality is really saying is that ISPs can’t be trusted to allows act to benefit consumers, and therefore need government oversight. Well, if that’s your principle, then what you are really saying is that you are a left-winger, not that you believe in net neutrality.

This, too, is utter garbage. Plenty of conservative-leaning people and politicians favour differing amounts of government oversight across a wide variety of industries. 73% of self-identified Republicans in a poll by Mozilla say they strongly or somewhat strongly support net neutrality rules. I don’t know — maybe 73% of the Republicans surveyed by Mozilla are actually secret “left-wingers” who may also support crazy liberal ideas like a representative democracy or freedom of speech. Or, perhaps, this isn’t a partisan issue: the internet has become a utility, and many people from across the political spectrum think it ought to be treated as such.