Law in the Internet Society
Comment: As I mentioned in the comments below, the heart (and point) of the previous essay WAS the point of view argument, so stripping it of that left it with just a basic overview of network neutrality--which I don't think adds anything to the discussion.

Here, I try to give a talking point regarding network neutrality--that it needs to be protected to help help the consumer class. I also attempt to give a brief, simple, and straightforward explanation of network neutrality that I think is largely lacking elsewhere on the internet. I feel like even the wikipedia article doesn't explain the concept in a way where a lay-reader can easily understand its importance or even what it really looks like at all. This paper is a completely new rewrite from the prior essay, taking into consideration your comments.

  • But Steven, you can't misinform the reader, or your piece has no credibility. This "must treat every packet and person equally" position is technical nonsense. Not only doesn't the network operate this way, it can't operate this way. The problem with the "network neutrality" concept is that no sensible person who understands how networks are managed could possibly agree with a description based on it, so it's not a basis for the formulation of policy, just a slogan. To take this supposed principle of non-discrimination and stack it up with a rhetorically similar process of "social equalization" produced by the Net is to join a valuable social objective to a technologically illiterate premise. This is not improvement.

  • As I said, the real problem for real-world policymakers is that packet and endpoint discrimination is a required element of network operation. Even within my own home network I need to use traffic shaping, for example, so that a VoIP phone call's packets always have priority over HTTP traffic instigated by a browser. My personal browser should also get better service than one running on my neighbor's computer, if my neighbor is borrowing my bandwidth through my open wireless node. Even more complex is the fact that my VoIP call may be encrypted inside an OpenVPN packet stream using UDP rather than TCP. And that's just my little home network: what Verizon or Sprint is doing to run their networks is many orders of magnitude more complex.

  • So regulators of the current, badly-designed capitalist network infrastructure confront the need to distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable discrimination in network operation, which is not well-modeled by foolish talk about neutrality.

  • Thanks for the prompt comment, professor. Just a quick question--is the problem here just about the way I describe the "current" state of affairs? I stated that "certain types of discriminatory network management may in fact be beneficial, but focus my essay on the potential harms." I use "neutrality" and "net neutrality" loosely in my essay to encompass beneficial and neutral discrimination. Yes, this is a distinction that I admit is misleading and erroneously so, and I'm happy to clarify that in another rewrite. However, I'm confused as to whether there is a deeper flaw going on here. I don't think my paper hinges on neutrality at all; its main point is that there is the potential for social harm in abusive discrimination by ISPs. Please let me know so that I can rewrite appropriately.

* Revised.

Net Neutrality and Social Equality

Net Neutrality

Network neutrality (as applied to the internet) is the idea that the best form of network management is one that does not exercise "abusive discrimination." By that, I mean discrimination of content or parties that (a) exercises control to shift the balance of the internet toward particular parties, and (b) is specifically intended to extract profits (rather than to enhance the system and its efficacy). Since the concept of network neutrality in fact focuses on the line between abusive and nonabusive discrimination, the term "neutrality" can be misleading (i.e. neither side of that line is neutral in a pure sense). While there might be some that even go as far to say that no discrimination--even that which is beneficial to all parties--should be allowed, my view is that only discrimination of an abusive nature should be curtailed.

Perhaps a simpler way to explain it is to give a couple of examples:

  • Blocking: In 2005, an Internet Service Provider (ISP, a company that provides internet service to the end consumers) that also provides phone services blocked rival internet-based phone services (such as Vonage) in order to increase its business in the telephone sector. Another ISP secretly blocked access to a popular but particularly network-draining application. Blocking might also be used to collect fees from the websites themselves for every time their users access them.
  • Slow lanes: Another oft-discussed method of discrimination is fast lanes, which involves giving users faster access to certain content (e.g. those that pay an extra fee or those that are owned by the ISP) and thus slower access to the rest.
  • Acceptable network management: An example of nonabusive discrimination (for the purposes of a counterexample) is when ISPs give special priority to traffic related to streaming video/audio over standard web browsing. This will enhance the users' experience, since a text website that loads slightly slower is not nearly as much of a nuisance as a movie that is starting and stopping constantly. This can also often be relatively nonabusive, since (a) its sole purpose is network design and management rather than profit, and (b) the balance of the internet has not shifted in any meaningful way.

Given that other websites such as Wikipedia already describe many of the arguments, I will focus this paper on my own. Mainly, that allowing abusive discrimination in network management has the potential to reduce if not erase the internet's role as an equalizing force.

The Value of a "Neutral" Internet

The internet has tended to be much more empowering for consumers than any other force, and has been able to do so due to the relatively low level of abusive discrimination thus far.

Consumer Power

For instance, when purchasing goods, the average consumer no longer has to rely on the word and prices of the closest store. They can do research online, read other consumers' reviews, compare prices, and even purchase from a reseller from another state with considerable ease. Same goes for basic tasks such as purchasing insurance, managing finances and taxes, learning languages, finding jobs, learning about legal rights and benefits, and even getting basic medical information to save a trip to the hospital. Suddenly, lower-income families that can at least afford the internet have a lot more time on their hands to take care of themselves, as well as a lot more information.

Lower Prices

Additionally, prices inevitably go down. Ease of access to multiple sellers, as suggested above, means that competition is greatly enhanced, especially as price comparison becomes instant. Secondary markets for used goods reduce the amount of waste, while allowing many to purchase goods they would have otherwise paid full price for. Finally, internet-based alternatives also tend to be much cheaper than their traditional counterparts--telephone services, streaming television, and all the web-based stores that don't need the overhead required by a brick-and-mortar storefront.

Social Equalization

On a social level, the playing field has arguably been leveled quite a bit by the internet. A clear example is the ease of well-coordinated internet-based grassroots campaigns, such as that during Obama's 2008 campaign for presidency. Even news is no longer completely controlled by the main outlet, as the influence of bloggers has risen over the years. Previously impeded by a lack of coordination and information, the public can now be more politically and socially active than ever before.

The Threat

People are no longer as isolated and thus vulnerable to the power of larger bodies such as government and large incumbent corporations due to the internet.

However, from the viewpoint of the ISPs, abusive network discrimination would be most profitable if it favored those larger bodies--they are more organized, wealthy, and powerful than the individual consumers. This is shown by the above examples of discrimination in recent memory, where the discriminatory methods were used to make the internet look and feel less like the internet and more like traditional incumbent-controlled industries. In fact, this is the very reason that those traditional industries look the way they do.

Technology's effect on society can vary vastly based on its particular uses--the same technology that might aid and support the lower classes might also be employed to keep them down. The internet and its uses today are far from perfect in this regard, but its overall effect is still positive. Currently, private interests only have undue influence due to their familiarity and popularity, as any third party can still compete at least in terms of access and network infrastructure. However, this may change even without our knowing, with private interests actually using their control over network infrastructure to disrupt the social effects of the internet.

-- StevenHwang - 17 Feb 2009

  • Here's an example of a genre in which 1,000 words is much too long. You can't make a commercial for something as complex as "net neutrality" (itself a completely intellectually irresponsible oversimplification of the concept of cooperative rather than competitive network infrastructure management) in 1,000 words, because readers need you to give them the whole message in a unit they can remember and reuse. The illustrations only make things worse, by adding various emotional responses to the understanding you hoped to create (although the cartoon on its own does a better job than your essay with the cartoon as illustration). If you want to make this work, you have to remove all thr anthropomorphism and pseudo-autobiography, and find a brief, punchy, absolutely clear way to convey the idea. Then you have to confront the analytical fact your advertisement necessarily glosses over: that the "network neutrality" way of conceiving the problem is a total load of horseshit deliberately invented by its enemies and taken up by advocates of freedom too stupid to know better.

Thanks for the comment--I did not realize we were supposed to be checking the wiki still, so I didn't get it till today.

My paper (r2) was meant to be half-commercial and half-philosophical argument, based largely on Gerald Cohen's "Rescuing Justice and Equality" (2008) (i.e. social justice requires the consideration of a hypothetical first-person discussion between the oppressed and the oppressors--otherwise defensible positions based on arguments in the abstract may not hold water in such conversations, and thus fail to be considered truly just). It's a tough point to make in a single parenthetical, but my essay was an attempt to take it to an extreme and somewhat absurd level (said anthropomorphism and pseudo-autobiography) while retaining the general point--that there really isn't a just way to defend a system of competitive network management, as you put it. I had also hoped to add a touch of personality and humor (via the tone and the links). I had this all laid out in an introduction in the original 5k-word draft.

The illustration was a forced after-thought and clearly it came off as such.

Anyways clearly it failed in its delivery, so I'll rewrite based on your comment. I'm not 100% sure about how to hash out an oversimplification (net neutrality) while making it less complex and easier to digest, but I will do my best. The former part of your comment (simplifying the problem, making it easier to digest) might be more the focus of my revision than the later (inability of the concept to grasp even a significant part of the real problem). In my opinion, oversimplified and intellectually irresponsible is better than not understood and obscure--at least for my purposes. I'll give it a shot sometime today.

-- StevenHwang - 08 Feb 2009



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r8 - 02 Mar 2009 - 06:47:59 - StevenHwang
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