This post was syndicated from: The Hacker Factor Blog and was written by: The Hacker Factor Blog. Original post: at The Hacker Factor Blog
One of my guilty little pleasures from living in Fort Collins, Colorado comes from how people abbreviate the city’s name: “FC”. Of course, I think I’m the only person in the city who pronounces it: F*ck. Our local bike co-op is FCBikeCoop. The local symphony is FCsymphony.org, and the city government’s web site is FCgov. Even the local Mennonite Fellowship calls themselves “FCMF”. (I’m probably going to hell for that one.)
I try to get out of the house every now and then. One of the local social groups that I attend are the Fort Collins Internet Professionals (FCIP — go ahead and pronounce it). Every now and then, they put out a request for presentation topics. One request was for someone to cover “Net Neutrality” — it is a big topic that few people really understand. I guess I was stupid because I said that I enjoyed this topic and I can easily argue either side of the debate. *Poof* They asked me to give a presentation on the topic. So, in about a week (Jan 20th), I’ll be presenting on Net Neutrality at FCIP.
(If you’re planning on attending the talk, then stop reading now! This blog entry contains spoilers!)
The entire net neutrality debate is polarizing. There are people who are strongly against, and people who are strongly for. Even corporations have come out with their official opinions. Microsoft is for, IBM is against. Netflix is for, Verizon is against. “Father of the Internet” Vint Cerf is for, “Father of the Internet” Bob Kahn is against. Really, both sides seem equally weighted in terms of big name support.
The strong opinions seem limited to people who understand most of the issues. Most regular people have heard the term but have no idea what the debate is about — or how the outcome impacts them. And if someone with a biased opinion describes the situation to the uninformed, then the newly converted becomes polarized with the same bias.
Personally, I was initially for net neutrality (a few years ago). But then I had some lively discussions with people opposed to Net Neutrality and I began to get the bigger picture. I think the most eye-opening discussion was with my friend, Marc Sachs, the Executive Director for National Security and Cyber Policy at Verizon. About three years ago, he took me though a “what if” hypothetical: what if net neutrality passes? Honestly, it isn’t the panacea that the “for” camp describes.
My current opinion: I am neither for nor against net neutrality. Both sides suck for end consumers and both sides suck for small online services. Maybe I should start a Meetup group and call it FC Net Neutrality.
When people talk about the for arguments, they mention things like anti-competition and data collection and information hijacking and forced peering agreement. And honestly, there are dozens (if not hundreds) of
- 2013-2014: Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon all throttled Netflix traffic until Netflix agreed to pay the carriers.
- 2011-2013: AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon blocked Google Wallet because it competed against their own payment system. (Isis the payment system, not ISIS the terrorist group, was later renamed to Softcard.)
- 2010: Windstream DSL hijacked user-search queries. Later, in 2011, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) found that several small ISPs were doing something similar.
- 2007-2009: AT&T forced Apple to block Skype and other competing VoIP services from iPhones.
- 2005-2007: Comcast blocked peer-to-peer BitTorrent and Gnutella. The FCC ruled this as illegal in 2008.
This list is nowhere near complete. Basically, if the carrier is the only option for the user to connect to the Internet, then the carrier controls what the user can access. And if access is geared toward a competing online service or a competing advertiser, then the carrier has the technical ability to alter the data. They can force users to only see sponsored ads or only access services that the carrier prefers.
There is a small set of anti-net neutrality arguments. In my opinion, I think these arguments are fairly weak. They mainly cover complaints about limited bandwidth or cost to maintain the network. Netflix, for example, was found to account for around 50% of all network traffic. (That’s HUGE!) If Netflix is going to generate that much traffic, then isn’t it reasonable to have Netflix pay for some of the network maintenance?
By the same means, trucks pay a different road tax than cars. This is because trucks are harder on the roads. More trucks means more road maintenance. It’s not uncommon to see roadsigns that say “no trucks” or “trucks use outer lanes only.” Part of it is maintenance costs to keep the roads in good condition, and part is to prevent big trucks from clogging traffic.
Anti-For and Anti-Against Arguments
Unlike the for and against arguments, there are some very strong anti arguments. This isn’t like anti-net neutrality; it is more about the long-term ramifications from any net neutrality outcome.
For example, Comcast is charging Netflix to be carried on the Comcast network. One would think that the price Netflix pays would lead to faster broadband speeds or lower end-user prices… but neither has happened. The network does not seem any faster (well, faster for watching Netflix, but not for anything else) and prices went up again.
But the whole Comcast/Netflix thing is under “life without net neutrality”.
With complete net neutrality, the Internet will become more like Detroit: a run-down framework of its former self. With little intrinsic value, large swaths of lawlessness, and walled gardens that enforce arbitrary rules.
Think of it this way: under net neutrality, the carriers cannot interfere with network traffic…
Net Neutrality = Lower Network Quality
There’s a series of protocols for load balancing and optimizing network traffic. The most common is RFC2212: Quality of Service (QoS). Without QoS, email has just as much priority as streaming video and VoIP. This means, a large amount of email can disrupt your streaming session. With QoS, the real-time protocols (video and VoIP) can be given precedence. Email will still be delivered, but it’s not necessarily immediate.
Without net neutrality, the application, carrier, backbone, or service can prioritize (throttle) traffic. With net neutrality, only the user or service can prioritize — and nobody else. This will result in more network traffic congestion and worse network performance.
Net Neutrality = More Bots
Just about every ISP out there filters some network ports. Things like NetBIOS (UDP ports 137-139, 445, and 445/TCP) are historically known for being exploited by malware.
Without net neutrality, ISPs can identify known vulnerable ports and block them. This reduces the amount of infected computers on the network. With net neutrality, the ISP must permit every packet.
About this time, someone says “Not true! The ISP can always take preventative steps to maintain the network!” Actually, no they can’t. The ISP can threshold speed or traffic in general, but not for any specific port or service. Otherwise, AT&T can decide that BitTorrent is a security risk and block access — like they did back in 2005. And if a service consumes 50% of all network traffic, then doesn’t it pose a risk to the network? Comcast should throttle Netflix (oh wait, they did).
Net Neutrality = More Attacks
At any given moment, there are dozens of active network attacks. If an ISP detects a denial-of-service, they have options to mitigate the attack. But what if we had net neutrality? In that case, every packet must be permitted.
And then someone says, “Not true! The ISP can always respond to an attack!” Actually, no they can’t. Remember: net neutrality is about the service and not the end user. If it were about the user, then Comcast would have asked all Comcast customers to pay a Netflix fee. Instead, Comcast asked Netflix for the payment.
If it’s about desirability, then it just depends on who you ask. If you ask Netflix, they will say it is desirable because you subscribed and paid. If you ask Skype, they will say it is desirable because you signed up. And if you asked that 12-year-old twerp on WoW who decided to DDoS you, he will say it is desirable because you were asking for it.
Under complete net neutrality, a service provider can cut you off after you reach some bandwidth limit. But they cannot take steps to mitigate the network attack.
Net Neutrality = On Your Own
The other thing to remember is that you, as the end consumer, cannot agree to have the ISP provide any protections. Any such agreement is just a bypass around net neutrality. If you ask Verizon to protect you from hostile network activities, then Verizon might decided to protect you from DDoS attacks. And protect you from malware by blocking certain ports. And protect you from bad products by blocking inferior ads and services. (And they get to define “inferior”.) And don’t forget that large stream of data coming to your computer — is that a network attack, or Netflix? Just to be sure, let’s throttle it.
What the FCC?
The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) plans to make a ruling on Net Neutrality next month. While nobody knows the specifics yet, there have been some strong hints from FCC Chief Tom Wheeler. He is quoted as saying “We’re going to propose rules that say that no blocking (is allowed), no throttling, no paid prioritization”.
I keep thinking about who will win and lose based on the outcome. If the new rules are not strong enough, then the carriers will be big winners: they will still be able to manipulate the network to provide preferential treatment for their own services and advertisers. The big losers will be the online services, like Netflix and Amazon’s streaming video services. And the end consumers will lose because they will still be manipulated and not have unmolested network access.
On the other hand, if the new rules are strong, then who comes out ahead? Well, the carriers will be big winners because they no longer have to police network traffic. Any network problems can be blamed on the FCC. The big losers will be the big streaming services, like Netflix and Amazon’s streaming video, because they cannot have high-priority QoS data. And the end consumers will lose because network quality will be degraded and they will no longer have protections like network attack throttling and hostile port blocking.
That’s right: no matter what the outcome is, the carriers will benefit, online services like Netflix and Amazon will be negatively impacted, and the end consumer loses big. In this debate for net neutrality, be careful of what you wish for. Because you just might get it.