“Feds and Internet Service Providers Don’t Mix”

by on September 30, 2008 · 12 comments

[Not sure if someone else has mentioned this here yet, but... ] There’s a terrific piece by Paul Korzeniowski in Forbes this week about the Comcast-BitTorrent debacle called, “Feds and Internet Service Providers Don’t Mix.”  It’s well worth reading the whole thing, but I particularly like this passage:

For whatever reason, some believe ISPs should not be able to put any restrictions on the volume of information that any user transmits. That’s absurd. Per-bit and per-byte pricing models have long been used for data transmissions. In trying to build and sustain their businesses, carriers constantly balance their attractiveness and viability versus unlimited usage pricing models. By government decree, they no longer have that option. In effect, the FCC has decided to tell ISPs how to run their networks.

A related issue is Comcast’s reluctance to disclose its network management processes. The reason seems obvious. Carriers spend literally billions of dollars installing and fine-tuning their networks each year. If they can move traffic more efficiently from one location to the next than their competitors, it translates to a more profitable bottom line.  But network neutrality advocates maintain that Comcast has an obligation to open its network operation to the world. Why not have Kentucky Fried Chicken publish its original recipe or Coca-Cola tell us how it makes soft drinks?

Exactly. It gets back to a point I stressed in one of our podcasts on this issue about how “transparency” regulations are great in theory but in practice might have some rather profound implications.  More generally, there’s just the fact that it further puts the camel’s nose in the Internet tent by inviting regulators in to meddle more in the name of “transparency.”

As always, Richard Bennett has far more interesting things to say about the issue than me. Check out his essay about this same Forbes piece over at Circle ID.

  • Charles

    I don't understand how one can take the side of comcast on the network management issue. Imagine I buy a plan from comcast and the ad tells me “unlimited internet access at speed X” and comcast, without informing me, lowers my connection speed and, after a while, tells me “you're using too many ressources, so we're going to cut you off”. How, as a customer, was I not subject to false advertising?

    To be clear, I'm not agains bandwidth caps, differential speed pricing, per-byte pricing schemes or preferential treatment of certain applications or protocols. I want comcast to tell me though what the actual terms of my contract are so I can pick a different carrier if I don't like those terms. The free market only works if consumers are told what they're getting.

    I don't like the KFC analogy one bit in that respect. This isn't like asking KFC to disclose its recipe. This is more like KFC advertising an “all you can eat” meal where they come by your table to serve you every 10 minutes, except when you actually order the meal, they come by your table twice then stop. Then after an hour, they bring you the bill and tell you to pay and go, there isn't enough food to serve you. So again, I have nothing against KFC only offering “per-chicken” pricing, but they'd better not advertise it as “all you can eat”.

    I thought that was the 'transparency' at issue here. (Nevermind the net-neutrality arguments that there should be no protocol specific management.)

  • Ryan Radia

    Comcast hasn't used the word “unlimited” in its ads for several years. And when it did, the term was in reference to unlimited access, rather than unlimited usage. Recall that back in the days of dail-up, billing was often based on the number of hours connected rather than the number of bytes used. Comcast was touting the fact that its service was always-on so users could connect to the Web anytime without paying by the hour.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    The “unlimited usage” canard is the myth that refuses to die, probably because the neutralists push it relentlessly. ISPs employ limited duty-cycle pricing because it allows them to offer reasonable service at reasonable rates. Last time I checked, a T1 Committed Information Rate (that's 1.44 Mb/s, constant bandwidth) was $400/mo. That's a really and truly “unlimited” service, and I don't see file-sharers lining up for it.

  • http://srynas.blogspot.com/ Steve R.

    Adam, you only acknowledge half of the net neutrality debate. It is not simply about the efficient movement of packets. It is also about the internet user being assured a certain level of service that is not subject to arbitrary and capricious corporate control. As an analogy, when you put a piece of mail into the mailbox you expect it to be delivered to its destination. What you do not expect is that the post office (ISP) will read your mail, or if it is being sent to a competitor for the mail to be tossed into the trash, or if the mail delivery truck is not available for the mail to languish at the post office.

    True, the ISPs may own the “pipes”, but that does not automatically mean that the ISPs have an unencumbered “right” to do whatever they want. Stories of companies abusing using their “ISP” powers have already surfaced. Some companies have blocked consumers from accessing sites the providing companies don't like. Some companies have been accused of degrading service. Some companies are now pushing for the ability to filter (read) your packets. Here is a recent TechDirt Article Is Bell Canada Going To Purposely Screw Up GPS Signals To Harm Competitors? that points to the ability of a company to take a unilateral adverse action for whatever reason they deem appropriate. The consumer pays for access, therefore the consumer should be assured of a certain level of service.

    However, how is the consumer to be assured of a certain level of service? The issue of “transparency” was raised and you concluded that ““transparency” regulations are great in theory but in practice might have some rather profound implications.” The implication of that statement is that companies do not have to be transparent in their operations. that is that they can do whatever they want in secret. This leaves the consumer in a powerless position.

    To address the concerns of the consumer, the industry could offer a code-of-conduct that would offer the consumer with certain assurances that their “mail” will be delivered and will not be read (filtered). The net neutrality debate should not be limited to the so-called rights of the ISPs themselves, but should take into account the responsibility of the ISP to provide service to the customers since that is what the customers are paying for. Consumers have rights too.

    When many people discuss transparency as an onerous responsibility, they are saying “trust me”. Whenever someone usually says “trust me” and fails to disclose how we can trust them, a red flag should go up. As previously stated we already have examples of ISP abusing their trust. In fact, our current financial meltdown is a result of a lack of transparency and financial corporations acting irresponsibly. Without the “break” of responsibility, the anecdotal evidence is that the ISPs will most likely not act responsibly. The ISPs may own the “pipes”, but it is the user of those “pipes” who pays for them, and those “pipes” should blindly deliver the mail without question.

  • Ryan Radia

    Why do all networks have to operate in exactly the same manner? And if an ISP feels it can maximize customers' experiences by interfering with certain types of traffic, why shouldn't it be free to do so?

    Comparing the pipes you pay for as a residential ISP subscriber to the mail misses the point. With mail, you pay for each piece of mail based on its weight and size. With a residential broadband subscription, you're paying for a best-effort pipe and it is spelled out from the beginning that certain kinds of information may be subject to interference. Even Comcast includes a clause in its terms of service that gives it the right to manage peer-to-peer traffic.

    If industry wishes to create a code of conduct, fine by me–but any such code should be purely voluntary. As we've said many times here at TLF, there is no reason we couldn't have some ISPs that operate in accordance with your preferences, and others that curb peer-to-peer traffic. Consumers will choose the service that best fits their needs.

    As Richard notes above, if you want access to a pipe that operates just like the mail service in that all data is guaranteed to reach its destination without any filtering or artificial limitations, you can always get a T1 line or some other sort of dedicated connection.

    I don't like arbitrary traffic interference and I prefer providers that do not target certain protocols for degradation. But aside from peer-to-peer and certain types of malicious traffic, actual instances of providers interfering with customer traffic are few and far between. And as far as I know, each time an ISP has been found blocking a website or censoring the Web, it has quickly ceased the practice, presumably in order to prevent a public relations nightmare and a corresponding loss of subscribers.

  • http://srynas.blogspot.com/ Steve R.

    After reading your reply, I stopped by TechDirt and was greeted by this article Cox Lies To Customers; Says DMCA Requires Disconnects For File Sharing

    Mike writes “What's really odd is that Cox had built up a reputation as being the customer friendly broadband ISP that took customer service very seriously. Yet, here they are, cutting users off, lying to them about why and relying on the entertainment industry's weak evidence to harm its customers.”

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    I'm sure Cox has a terms of use that says you can't use your Internet access for illegal purposes.

  • http://srynas.blogspot.com/ Steve R.

    After reading your reply, I stopped by TechDirt and was greeted by this article Cox Lies To Customers; Says DMCA Requires Disconnects For File Sharing

    Mike writes “What's really odd is that Cox had built up a reputation as being the customer friendly broadband ISP that took customer service very seriously. Yet, here they are, cutting users off, lying to them about why and relying on the entertainment industry's weak evidence to harm its customers.”

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    I'm sure Cox has a terms of use that says you can't use your Internet access for illegal purposes.

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