And You Think Bureaucrats Could do Better?

by on November 15, 2007 · 24 comments

In the recent Verizon Uprisin’ (successor to the Comcast Kerfuffle – how’m I doin’?), the blogospheric back-and-forth between TLFer Tim Lee (writing at TechDirt) and TLFriend Ed Felten illustrates nicely the difficulty with both parts of the case for ‘net neutrality regulation.

The first question is whether there is a problem that needs solving. The two disagree about whether Verizon’s operation of its DNS servers is a ‘net neutrality violation at all.

The second question is whether the problem is better solved by regulation or by market processes (expert agitation, consumer pressure, etc. that carry with them the threat or reality of lost customers and profits). As a technical matter, Tim points out that people are free to point their computers to another DNS server, such as OpenDNS. Ed says “it might turn out that the regulatory cure is worse than the disease.”

Even among those who disagree on whether there’s a substantive ‘net neutrality violation here, regulation doesn’t seem to be the cure. Even Harold Feld hasn’t written a triumphal post. (Though, in fairness, he seems to be distracted – and oh so giddy – about cable regulation.)

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    In case I wasn’t clear, I do think Verizon has a problem that needs solving in the sense that I find this “feature” annoying and would prefer that ISPs not do it. Generally speaking, I think it’s a bad idea for ISPs to add “features” to basic services like DNS that break compatibility with software expecting the service to follow the RFC. However, I think it’s a relatively minor problem, and I don’t think the “network neutrality” label really fits.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    In case I wasn’t clear, I do think Verizon has a problem that needs solving in the sense that I find this “feature” annoying and would prefer that ISPs not do it. Generally speaking, I think it’s a bad idea for ISPs to add “features” to basic services like DNS that break compatibility with software expecting the service to follow the RFC. However, I think it’s a relatively minor problem, and I don’t think the “network neutrality” label really fits.

  • http://eldiabloenlosdetalles.net Carlos

    “Expert agitation” as a market force? That’s a new one in my book.

  • http://eldiabloenlosdetalles.net Carlos

    “Expert agitation” as a market force? That’s a new one in my book.

  • http://linuxworld.com/community/ Don Marti

    It’s not just a choice between taking what the ISP gives you and becoming a nerd who dorks around with DNS settings and keeps up with future anti-neutrality tricks from the ISP. The third option is for one of the companies that builds router/firewall/switch/access point boxes to add neutrality and privacy at that level. Get trustworthy DNS info, connect an IPv6 tunnel, block forged RST packets, scramble your Google cookies for privacy, keep your Grandma from sending any HTTP POST with a 16-digit number in it, block your family’s worm-infested PCs from making outgoing SMTP connections, whatever.

    Will people spend an extra $20 for all the neutrality that a home router can give them?

    No match for “NEUTRALITYENGINE.COM”.

  • http://linuxworld.com/community/ Don Marti

    It’s not just a choice between taking what the ISP gives you and becoming a nerd who dorks around with DNS settings and keeps up with future anti-neutrality tricks from the ISP. The third option is for one of the companies that builds router/firewall/switch/access point boxes to add neutrality and privacy at that level. Get trustworthy DNS info, connect an IPv6 tunnel, block forged RST packets, scramble your Google cookies for privacy, keep your Grandma from sending any HTTP POST with a 16-digit number in it, block your family’s worm-infested PCs from making outgoing SMTP connections, whatever.

    Will people spend an extra $20 for all the neutrality that a home router can give them?

    No match for “NEUTRALITYENGINE.COM”.

  • nedu

    Jim,

    What’s your position on DNSSEC?

    If Verizon’s sale of typos conflicts with user security, who do you support?

  • nedu

    Jim,

    What’s your position on DNSSEC?

    If Verizon’s sale of typos conflicts with user security, who do you support?

  • http://www2.blogger.com/profile/14380731108416527657 Steve R.

    I think it is premature to raise the bureaucratic bogeyman. Sure he or she is easy to kick-around, but it begs the fundamental question of why we are not questioning the use of underhanded tactics by corporations. If we don’t question corporate behavior; that would seem to imply that it is OK for corporations, in the name of facilitating business, to use underhanded tactics. What is the rationale foundation that would justify the use business practices that are not transparent?

    I also pose the reverse question. If corporations have an implicit right to “steal” from customers then don’t customers have an implicit right to “steal” from corporations. I am not arguing that customers have the right to steal, just that I would like to see a level playing field. I don’t think anyone would really like to see an anarchistic economic system.

    I am avoiding the use of ethical behavior since the issue before us, from the Libertarian point of view, is not good versus bad; but one of transparency.

  • http://www2.blogger.com/profile/14380731108416527657 Steve R.

    I think it is premature to raise the bureaucratic bogeyman. Sure he or she is easy to kick-around, but it begs the fundamental question of why we are not questioning the use of underhanded tactics by corporations. If we don’t question corporate behavior; that would seem to imply that it is OK for corporations, in the name of facilitating business, to use underhanded tactics. What is the rationale foundation that would justify the use business practices that are not transparent?

    I also pose the reverse question. If corporations have an implicit right to “steal” from customers then don’t customers have an implicit right to “steal” from corporations. I am not arguing that customers have the right to steal, just that I would like to see a level playing field. I don’t think anyone would really like to see an anarchistic economic system.

    I am avoiding the use of ethical behavior since the issue before us, from the Libertarian point of view, is not good versus bad; but one of transparency.

  • http://www.cato.org/people/harper.html Jim Harper

    Yes, Carlos, expert agitation is a market force. Experts and bloggers are participants in the market, providing information to help inform consumers’ judgments about the reputations of ISPs and the quality of their products. When leading bloggers talk about real or alleged defects in products and services, that influences corporate behavior. The greater the risk to companies’ bottom lines, the greater the likelihood of improved behavior. Glad to add some new knowledge to your book.

    (Apologies, Tim, my poor phrasing suggested that you thought there was no problem, when in fact you think there is a problem – just that it’s not a ‘net neutrality violation as that term would be defined in law.)

    To Steve R., I believe this entire discussion is about corporate behavior that is wrongful in some degree. Generic “corporate wrongdoing” is being addressed in the particular right here, just as a particular instance of (alleged) corporate wrongdoing was discussed in the Comcast Kerfuffle.

    To illustrate particular versus generic, if someone is rude to me and I shun them, that directly addresses his or her bad manners. I don’t have to adopt the role of Miss Manners or write a book about courtesy to do it. It still affects the wrongdoer, and it’s about the wrongdoing.

    Market forces similarly have their influence in particular cases – when a person turns away from a provider with a bad reputation, when a reporter writes a column about bad broadband provider, etc. These directly or indirectly punish wrongdoing, real or perceived, in each individual instance. Collectively, these address the generic problem of wrongdoing (corporate or not).

    (Again here, there’s no allegation of law-breaking/”stealing.” You can leave aside the confusing hyperbole.)

  • http://www.cato.org/people/harper.html Jim Harper

    Yes, Carlos, expert agitation is a market force. Experts and bloggers are participants in the market, providing information to help inform consumers’ judgments about the reputations of ISPs and the quality of their products. When leading bloggers talk about real or alleged defects in products and services, that influences corporate behavior. The greater the risk to companies’ bottom lines, the greater the likelihood of improved behavior. Glad to add some new knowledge to your book.

    (Apologies, Tim, my poor phrasing suggested that you thought there was no problem, when in fact you think there is a problem – just that it’s not a ‘net neutrality violation as that term would be defined in law.)

    To Steve R., I believe this entire discussion is about corporate behavior that is wrongful in some degree. Generic “corporate wrongdoing” is being addressed in the particular right here, just as a particular instance of (alleged) corporate wrongdoing was discussed in the Comcast Kerfuffle.

    To illustrate particular versus generic, if someone is rude to me and I shun them, that directly addresses his or her bad manners. I don’t have to adopt the role of Miss Manners or write a book about courtesy to do it. It still affects the wrongdoer, and it’s about the wrongdoing.

    Market forces similarly have their influence in particular cases – when a person turns away from a provider with a bad reputation, when a reporter writes a column about bad broadband provider, etc. These directly or indirectly punish wrongdoing, real or perceived, in each individual instance. Collectively, these address the generic problem of wrongdoing (corporate or not).

    (Again here, there’s no allegation of law-breaking/”stealing.” You can leave aside the confusing hyperbole.)

  • http://www2.blogger.com/profile/14380731108416527657 Steve R.

    Jim, Your counter points are valid, especially the concept of “shunning”. Shunning would be quite practical in a small town where businesses are locally owned. I am not quite convinced that shunning would be as effective in situations where a large corporation has monopoly power. But then we have the internet which allows us to quickly organize and respond, through forums such as this one. If enough people get involved nationwide shunning could still have a positive influence.

  • http://www2.blogger.com/profile/14380731108416527657 Steve R.

    Jim, Your counter points are valid, especially the concept of “shunning”. Shunning would be quite practical in a small town where businesses are locally owned. I am not quite convinced that shunning would be as effective in situations where a large corporation has monopoly power. But then we have the internet which allows us to quickly organize and respond, through forums such as this one. If enough people get involved nationwide shunning could still have a positive influence.

  • http://www.cato.org/people/harper.html Jim Harper

    Thanks, Steve R., for your typically thoughtful comment. I notice that you added not one but two variables – 1) a large corporation that 2) is a monopoly.

    I think large corporations can be at least as responsive to consumer shunning (i.e. declining to buy). They have well-developed methods for tracking consumer behavior – particularly bottom-line behvaior like not buying – and correlating it to their business practices. They have public relations and public affairs teams dedicated to studying the market, consumer response, expert opinion, etc.

    A weakeness in my point about one-on-one shunning is that the rube may not notice. That’s part of being a rube, isn’t it? Large companies are well equipped to notice, though, admittedly, they are far from perfect at gauging every imperfection in their products, services, communications, pricing, etc.

    Maybe you mean that an individual consumer’s shunning has little influence on the large corporation. This is undoubtedly true, but in the aggregate – and definitely yes, organized over the Internet – our collective shunning is probably at least as powerful as the single customer shunning the mom-n-pop store.

    As to monopolies, that’s a special problem that I agree tends to suppress responsiveness to these signals. Because a true monopoly doesn’t have to. I’ll lay that aside, though, agreeing that we should have more competition in the provision of broadband.

  • http://www.cato.org/people/harper.html Jim Harper

    Thanks, Steve R., for your typically thoughtful comment. I notice that you added not one but two variables – 1) a large corporation that 2) is a monopoly.

    I think large corporations can be at least as responsive to consumer shunning (i.e. declining to buy). They have well-developed methods for tracking consumer behavior – particularly bottom-line behvaior like not buying – and correlating it to their business practices. They have public relations and public affairs teams dedicated to studying the market, consumer response, expert opinion, etc.

    A weakeness in my point about one-on-one shunning is that the rube may not notice. That’s part of being a rube, isn’t it? Large companies are well equipped to notice, though, admittedly, they are far from perfect at gauging every imperfection in their products, services, communications, pricing, etc.

    Maybe you mean that an individual consumer’s shunning has little influence on the large corporation. This is undoubtedly true, but in the aggregate – and definitely yes, organized over the Internet – our collective shunning is probably at least as powerful as the single customer shunning the mom-n-pop store.

    As to monopolies, that’s a special problem that I agree tends to suppress responsiveness to these signals. Because a true monopoly doesn’t have to. I’ll lay that aside, though, agreeing that we should have more competition in the provision of broadband.

  • http://www.wetmachine.com/totsf Harold Feld

    I’ve been wanting to post on this for awhile. I actually don’t think it’s a NN problem, although I do think it raises some privacy concerns.

  • http://www.wetmachine.com/totsf Harold Feld

    I’ve been wanting to post on this for awhile. I actually don’t think it’s a NN problem, although I do think it raises some privacy concerns.

  • http://eldiabloenlosdetalles.net Carlos

    Jim,

    Thanks for the explanation. Never heard that term before. I thought you meant ‘expert’ in a more academic setting, and tend to think myself of bloggers and the such as ‘uber-consumers’, but I see what you mean.

    Cheers

  • http://eldiabloenlosdetalles.net Carlos

    Jim,

    Thanks for the explanation. Never heard that term before. I thought you meant ‘expert’ in a more academic setting, and tend to think myself of bloggers and the such as ‘uber-consumers’, but I see what you mean.

    Cheers

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