Google’s MeasurementLab.net Now Makes Network Management Transparent—So Why Mandate Net Neutrality?

by on January 29, 2009 · 11 comments

Google has—as I noted it would last June—finally released (PCWorld, Google’s policy blog)  its eagerly-awaited suite of tools available for free (of course) at MeasurementLab.net that allow users to monitor how their ISP might be tweaking (degrading, deprioritizing, etc.) their traffic—among other handy features.  Huzzah!

So, now that we have visibility into traffic management practices on a large scale, remind me again why the FCC would need to mandate “net neutrality” requirements?  Why not just leave the matter up to the FTC to enforce each ISP’s terms of use under the agency’s existing authority to punish unfair and deceptive trade practices?  Won’t the threat of users switching to another broadband provider discipline ISPs’ traffic management?  (As long as ISPs have traffic nationwide traffic management policies, even those users in areas lacking meaningful broadband competition will be protected from discriminatory network management practices by pressure in other markets.)

“If you believe that network neutrality government regulation is not needed, if you believe that the market will handle this … then you should also welcome Measurement Labs,” [Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy director Ed] Felten said. “What you are appealing to is a process of public discussion … in which consumers move to the ISP [Internet service provider] that gives them the best performance. It’s a market that’s facilitated by better information.”

Yes, it’s true (as PCWorld article linked to above points out) that a consumer might not be able to discern whether apparent degradation of their traffic was actually caused by the ISP or whether it might be the result of, say, spyware or simple Internet congestion.  But they don’t need to figure that out for themselves.  Although the relatively small percentage of users who install this tool are likely to be highly sophisticated (at least the early adopters), all they need to is “sound the alarm” about what they think might be a serious violation of “net neutrality” principles, and a small cadre of technical experts can do the rest:  examining these allegations to determine what ISPs are actually doing.  

Sure, there will be false alarms and of course many advocates of “net neutrality” regulation will still insist that ISPs shouldn’t be allowed to practice certain kinds of network management, no matter how transparently the ISPs might disclose their practices.  But the truth will emerge, and in the ongoing tug-of-war between public pressure and ISPs’ practical needs to manage their networks smartly, between the desire of some to have practices disclosed very specifically and the ISPs’ desire to maintain operational flexibility, I suspect we’ll find a relatively stable (if constantly-evolving) equilibrium.  It won’t be perfect, but do we really think government bureaucrats will do a better job of finding that happy medium?

  • dm

    even those users in areas lacking meaningful broadband competition will be protected from discriminatory network management practices by pressure in other markets

    I think the real world throws a few obstacles in the way of such perfect competition.

    For one example, switching ISPs can be a fairly painful experience if, for example, it involves changing email addresses, too. Though I suppose Google may have fixed that problem with Gmail, as well. Further, some ISPs offer long-term contracts, much like cell-phone companies, so that changing ISPs is either delayed or accompanied by a financial penalty. And I'm not sanguine that ISPs wouldn't find a way to change their terms-of-use midway through such contracts (the language permitting such is probably already present in most use policies). Good heavens, some ISPs (e.g., Verizon) didn't even support Macintosh or Linux customers for years.

    I'm actually on the fence as far as net neutrality is concerned — I can see that there are reasonable arguments that the ability to charge for new services might encourage ISPs to install them.

  • quanticle

    It seems to me that the fundamental basis behind opponents of net neutrality legislation is that there is a free market for Internet access. I see very little evidence that such a market exists. For example, in the Minneapolis/St. Paul suburbs, one has two choices for Internet access: Comcast cable, and Qwest DSL. Verizon is supposed to be rolling out FiOS “sometime soon”, but the rollout has already been pushed back twice. Comcast is rolling out DOCSIS 3.0, but at the prohibitively high cost of $150 per month. Given Comcast's shady reputation where net neutrality is concerned and that Qwest (still!) doesn't serve all of the suburbs, its really hard to argue that one has any meaningful “choice” when it comes to high-speed 'net access.

  • Gallipoli

    As long as ISPs have traffic nationwide traffic management policies, even those users in areas lacking meaningful broadband competition

    By which you mean nearly every area in the United States.

    will be protected from discriminatory network management practices by pressure in other markets.

    What does this even mean? That people are going to move because the lone network provider in their area is abusing that market power? Or are they to bootstrap up their own ISP with all of the efficient network paths already dominated by the current monopoly?

  • drewclark

    I'm glad to see that this issue is finally gaining some traction in the broader world. BroadbandCensus.com has been using the Network Diagnostic Tool of Internet2 since January 2008 as a means of comparing actual internet speeds with those promised by carriers.

    The speed tests of individual broadband users are all made publicly available on BroadbandCensus.com under a Creative Commons license.

    The goal of the Broadband Census is to use transparency and public accountability to allow consumers to understand the speeds, prices, availability, reliability and competition in the local broadband marketplace. It sounds as though Google and the New America Foundation have a similar transparency-based motivation.

    See my story about the launch at http://broadbandcensus.com/blog/?p=1301, or Take the Broadband Census at http://broadbandcensus.com/census/form

  • http://www.123directorysubmission.com Directory Submission

    Transparency has always been crucial to the success of the Internet, and so the Internet users deserve to be well-informed about what they're getting when they sign up for broadband. I, therefore, feel this is a good initiative from google to help the Internet user community.

  • http://www.123directorysubmission.com Directory Submission

    Transparency has always been crucial to the success of the Internet, and so the Internet users deserve to be well-informed about what they're getting when they sign up for broadband. I, therefore, feel this is a good initiative from google to help the Internet user community.

  • http://www.123directorysubmission.com Directory Submission

    Transparency has always been crucial to the success of the Internet, and so the Internet users deserve to be well-informed about what they're getting when they sign up for broadband. I, therefore, feel this is a good initiative from google to help the Internet user community.

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