Saturday, December 16, 2017

Net Neutrality: What it is, What it Isn't, and Why You Should Care

I've seen a lot of .. stuff .. from both sides of the political aisle lately regarding Net Neutrality, so I figured I should chime in. Why?  Because I've been tightly coupled with the internet for just about as long as it existed, developing software that uses it, and using it myself.  I remember when the internet was nothing more than a way look at other universities' libraries using a tiny, text-based terminal. I remember when the World Wide Web didn't exist. I remember how exciting it was when people figured out a way to actually look at pictures using a new graphics-based browser, and I remember how cool it was when a Pizza Hut in New York City or somewhere set up a home page where you could actually order a pizza over the internet! From that time to the present, the internet has been an integral part of my career as a software engineer - indeed, my job today wouldn't exist without it!

Further, I have written code that implements the communications protocols upon which the internet is entirely based. To say that I have a good understanding of how the internet works at its deepest technical levels would not be an understatement.

So now you have my "credentials," and hopefully enough information to establish that I know what I'm talking about, and that, regardless of your current opinion on Net Neutrality, you should pay attention to what I'm going to say.

Net Neutrality Is Not New

Contrary to what a lot of conservatives are saying, Net Neutrality is not new. I do understand why they say that, though, so I will explain what they are actually talking about, and how that came about.

In 2015, the FCC adopted Title 2 rules for the internet. This did, in fact, codify some of NN's principles into law, and this is what was recently repealed by the FCC. However, Net Neutrality itself existed for a long time before that as a founding principle of how the internet operated.  To understand this, we must first understand what the internet actually is. I will try to avoid boring my readers with anything terribly technical, but some nerd-speak will be necessary.

At its core, the internet is a network of interconnected computers that allows those computers to send chunks of data (called "packets") to each other. The Internet Protocol (IP for short - this is where we get the term IP Address) is a well-defined communications protocol that every computer on the internet must speak. It provides, at a minimum, a source IP address and service (or port) number, a destination IP address and service/port number, the payload of data being transferred, and some overhead to ensure that the data doesn't get corrupted along the way.

Notice how the IP protocol doesn't care what is in that data payload?  That is the essence of Net Neutrality - the protocol that enables the connection is content neutral. Only the source and destination computers need to care about what's actually in the payload. This is the level at which your ISP is supposed to operate. They provide your computer with its IP Address, and they move the data packets between your computer and the rest of the internet - that's all.

Everything else, from your email to your shopping on Amazon, to the dirty pictures your creepy uncle likes to download, to your favorite YouTube videos, to your video conference at work, to the text you're reading right now, is all built on top of that very simple method of moving packets of data from one computer to another.

When the internet began, it was inherently neutral. The computers that handled the data transfers were not fast enough to bother with inspecting the actual data, and so internet service providers left it up to their customers to decide what they would send back and forth. This is what allowed for all of the innovation and growth we saw in the 1990s and 2000s and today as people imagined and implemented new and exciting things that could be sent back and forth. That simplicity is what allowed the internet to become the free and open marketplace of ideas it has been and continues to be to this day.

So what happened in 2015, then?

Prior to the FCCs 2015 rulemaking, there was trouble in paradise. Computers were getting faster, the internet was getting bigger, and more people wanted in on the action. Netflix and streaming video became popular, as did things like Facetime and online video conferencing. Big internet service providers like Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, etc, realized that people would pay good money for some of these services, and they wanted people to pay that good money to them. So, they started manipulating the internet traffic that went through their networks in order to artificially give preference to their own services.

As an example, AT&T blocked its users from using Apple's FaceTime software, forcing them instead to use AT&T's proprietary (not to mention inferior, which some of its users pronounced the same as "shitty") video streaming service, for which they charged a premium. Their customers, however, who were accustomed to being able to use their internet connections for whatever they wanted (which is what Net Neutrality is) complained, and rightfully so, that AT&T was unfairly interfering with their choices as consumers.

Around the same time, Comcast was caught red-handed disabling certain file sharing protocols that many of their customers were using for legitimate purposes, like providing software downloads, etc.. Again, customers complained, and rightfully so.

In another example, Comcast (again) began artificially lowering the speed at which Netflix videos reached their customers, demanding that Netflix pay what amounted to a ransom in order to reach customers on Comcast's network. Netflix and customers both complained, but eventually, Netflix had to give in and pay the ransom in order to stay in business.

Eventually, these and many other well-documented cases of abuse reached the ears of the federal government, and action was taken in 2015 to protect Net Neutrality in the form of new FCC rules that made those abusive practices illegal.  Those protections were the ones recently repealed by the FCC.

Net Neutrality is not "Obamacare for the Internet"

So, contrary to what the opponents say, Net Neutrality didn't just show up in 2015 as a result of government overreach. Rather, it is a founding principle and the way things have always worked and operated. The concept is much the same as that of free speech, which pre-existed the first amendment but was codified into law because people in power tried to violate it, to the detriment of everyone.  Now, imagine if, 2 years after the adoption of the bill of rights, someone said they ought to repeal the first amendment because, after all, we were all just fine without it. I imagine anyone, regardless of their political affiliations, would be highly suspect of such a move.

Well, so it is with Net Neutrality. In reality, we've had it all along, and it's what made the internet work as well as it does. It needed to become law because unscrupulous people decided they wanted to exert more control over what you and I do on the internet and turn it to their financial advantage.  But, there's something even more nefarious than that at work, and I'll show you what that is eventually.

Net Neutrality IS Freedom

Contrary to what opponents will tell you, it is not at all difficult to provide a Net Neutral connection to consumers. In fact, it's a lot easier than providing one that isn't neutral.

Read again the examples of neutrality abuse that I pointed out before. What needs to be understood is that, in order to do those things, your ISP has to implement something called Deep Packet Inspection, or DPI. That means they need to have their computers take apart and examine the payload of each IP data packet that goes through their network, determine what it is, and then apply a bunch of checks and filtering to it before deciding whether to send it along, block it, re-route it, or whatever. Not only does this take up a lot more computing power, but it also introduces unnecessary complexity into the network - complexity that can produce failures, introduce security holes, and, in general, make the network less reliable and less secure. Therefore, it's easy to see that a Neutral Net is less expensive to provide, more secure, and more reliable than a non-neutral net. So why do big ISPs want to have this non-neutral overhead if it makes their job more difficult?

The answer is two-fold. The first part is plain and simple - money. They have the money to invest in computers powerful enough to do DPI now, and they know they can use that technology to artificially limit their customers' internet access, and then sell them the same stuff at a premium. But that's not even the worst of it. Suppose you start your own video streaming company. Today, with Net Neutrality in place, you would only have to get a good enough connection to the internet, put your servers online, and let customers and search engines find you. If your product is good, you will get customers and make piles of money, maybe even one day becoming big enough to compete with YouTube. However, without Net Neutrality, big ISPs like Comcast, Verizon, etc, will be allowed to force you to pay them a pile of money in order for your servers to be reachable at all by their customers. Now, in order to compete with YouTube, your streaming service will have to pay a premium to be included in the same list of available content, and your customers would have to pay the same ISPs extra money in order to get to your content. I cannot understand for the life of me why people who normally support a free market would be ok with this, yet many conservatives and libertarians seem to be. Since I usually run in those same circles politically, I can only assume that they just don't get it.

The second answer is not as simple, but far more nefarious - control. DPI will allow ISPs, and, by extension, governments, hackers, etc, to inspect and control what you do on the internet. Sending a saucy text to your wife or husband? Your ISP and Uncle Sam are watching. Reading blogs that are hostile to the current political climate? Not only will they know what you're reading, but without Net Neutrality, your ISP can legally prevent you from accessing it, or even knowing its there to begin with. The fact that you're even reading my blog now is actually brought to you by Net Neutrality .. without it, my ISP could say "hey, we don't like what you're publishing in your blog, so we're not going to let you do that on our network."  So now you see how Net Neutrality isn't only about consumer protection, but it's also about fundamental liberties like freedom of speech.  At least, I hope you do.

Net Neutrality is Not Government Overreach

Now, normally, I'm all for limited government and as few regulations as possible, both economic and social. I don't like taxes. I REALLY don't like gun control. I don't like laws that create victimless crimes. I believe people should be allowed to pursue whatever interpersonal relationships they want between consenting adults without the government interfering with or favoring any of them. I don't think the government should force me to buy health insurance if I don't want to. I think that gay married couples should be allowed to defend their marijuana fields with machine guns that have silencers on them. I believe that businesses, for the most part, have the right to set their own business practices as they see fit, and to succeed or fail on their own merit. I also believe that neither my government nor my ISP has the right to dictate or observe what I do or see on the internet if I don't want them to.

However, one must concede that certain regulations are necessary in order to maintain both individual freedoms and a functioning free market economy. This is why we have the bill of rights, and this is why we have laws against harmful business practices like false advertising, medical malpractice, etc.. After all, if a right is infringed, does it matter whether it's a government or a company that's doing the infringing?  It shouldn't...

In the US Declaration of Independence is found the familiar phrase, "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of happiness..."

What people don't usually remember is what comes right after that: "And that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed .." [emphasis added by me, obviously]

Did you catch that?  The purpose of government is to secure the rights of the people by law. So that must mean that some laws are good and necessary and not contrary to freedom. I say this because I get the feeling that my more libertarian friends seem to think that every regulation is a bad regulation. Well, I disagree - regulations that harm consumers or make it harder to start a business are bad. Regulations that encourage innovation, prevent consumers from getting screwed over with no recourse, or keep us from destroying our planet are good and necessary regulations to have - they secure our rights, our freedoms, and even in some cases our lives.

Net Neutrality is one of those necessary regulations. It secures and enhances our rights to free association, free speech, our online freedom. It encourages small businesses and creates room for innovation. It promotes fair free-market competition. It enhances consumer choice and the availability of information to everyone. This is one of the few things I feel the political left has gotten right ... if you'll pardon the expression. Net Neutrality should be one thing both sides can agree on, even if we're still going to fight over gun control, taxes, marriage, etc..

Why You Should Care

We should care, because to some extent, Net Neutrality is what allows us to use the internet as a way to engage in those other debates freely. It ensures that my voice, and yours, too, are able to be heard just as loudly as those of Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Donald Trump, Netflix, Everytown, the NRA, etc.. To lose Net Neutrality is to risk losing your own voice on the internet. It's equivalent to losing your freedom of speech, losing your ability to make informed choices, losing your ability to access the information you want to consume. Losing Net Neutrality would be catastrophic. I only hope it's not too late already.

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