Massive telecom companies control virtually all of our voice and internet communications these days—and new evidence shows a near-total lack of commitment to our democracy. AT&T has proposed filtering all content traveling on its network. Verizon tried initially to block NARAL's pro-choice text messages. Most telecom companies are fighting net neutrality. Can democracy survive an assault by those who control the tubes?The panel members don't include anyone with any experience managing or operating an actual telecom network, but instead includes two people who have repeatedly demonstrated not only an ignorance of telecom law, technology, and policy, but who have misrepresented facts and failed to engage with the arguments of their critics, Matt Stoller and Timothy Karr (see posts on this blog in the "net neutrality" category). The closest person to a representative of a telecom is Michael Kieschnick of Working Assets, a company that is a reseller of long distance and wireless service on Sprint's network.
I agree with many of their positions--I don't think ISPs should be allowed to block websites on the basis of disagreement with content. I think ISPs should be transparent about their network management processes and filtering. Where I disagree with them is that they advocate that the FCC step in to regulate the Internet in a way that it has never had authority to do so before, and demand that network operators not be allowed to implement classes of service with different rates of charges, or even usage caps. Art Brodsky expresses the point which has also been made by Robb Topolsky of Public Knowledge, Timothy Karr of Free Press, and Matt Stoller:
In the name of "network management," some companies want to throttle down the use of legal applications, like BitTorrent which may, coincidentally, provide competition in entertainment programming. They want to impose usage caps across the board on all customers which would stifle innovation and curb the use of video (there's that anti-competitive meme again) without actually solving the problem of the so-called "bandwidth hogs." The way caps are being discussed now, they would only lead to higher prices and less usage for an industry that already charges more for less than most broadband providers around the world. Parts of our broadband industry may be the only sector in the world that wants to cut down the amount of its product it wants customers to use.Brodsky's last sentence is clearly false--broadband is like a fixed-price all-you-can-eat buffet. All businesses want to maximize their profits by maximizing revenue and minimizing costs. When bandwidth is sold at a fixed cost in unlimited amounts, where a small number of users are consuming the majority of the service, it's in the business's interest to restrict those users or charge them more for what they consume in order to satisfy the rest in a cost-effective manner. The options are few--you can either restrict the "bandwidth hogs" in some way, charge them more so that they pay for what they use, or raise the price for everyone. These guys seem to advocate the latter approach, while I'm in favor of allowing all the options to be used in a competitive market. Where I disagree with Comcast's approach in issuing RST packets to block BitTorrent traffic is not that they did it, but that they were not transparent about what they were doing (and apparently didn't quite get it quite right--it should not have completely broken BitTorrent, but only slowed it down).
Brodsky's suggestion that Comcast has an interest in blocking BitTorrent because it provides competition in the entertainment space is absurd--they have an interest in blocking it because it's a very popular application which itself exploits Internet protocols in a way not anticipated by the designers in order to consume more bandwidth, getting around the congestion controls in TCP/IP by using multiple TCP streams. If BitTorrent traffic wasn't filling up the majority of Comcast's bandwidth, they'd have no interest in it, except when the MPAA and RIAA issue them subpoenas about their users infringing copyrights.
If the government prohibits the use of differential classes of service (which is already heavily used by private companies to give priority to applications within their enterprise which have requirements for low latency and jitter, such as real-time streaming audio and video, including Voice over IP) and requires that congestion be dealt with by building out infrastructure sufficiently that there will never be congestion no matter how many users max out their connectivity with BitTorrent, that will reduce competition by culling smaller companies out of the picture and making market entry more difficult. In any environment where a provider's upstream capacity is less than the sum of the capacity to every customer (and that's everywhere, today, and always has been), all-you-can-eat bandwidth is like a commons. The more that is available, the more the heavy users will consume, to the detriment of each other and the light users. Without setting caps and having tiered pricing or implementing technology that prioritizes packets and drops from the heavy users and from less-realtime-sensitive applications first (like BitTorrent), there are no incentives against consuming everything that is available.
I also think it's a huge mistake to have the FCC start regulating the Internet. FCC chairman Kevin Martin would no doubt love to place indecency standards and filtering requirements on Internet content. Once you open the door to FCC regulation of the Internet, that becomes more likely. And the FCC has been completely ineffectual at dealing with existing abuses like fraudulent telemarketing, illegal prerecord calls to residences and cell phones, caller ID spoofing, etc., already covered by statute and regulation. I'd rather see clear statutes that include private rights of action than entrust control of the Internet to the FCC. The FCC is a slow-moving bureaucracy, and AT&T and Verizon have the deepest pockets, the most lawyers, and the most personnel who have shuffled back and forth between government (including the NSA) and industry. That gives AT&T and Verizon the tactical advantage, and leads to less competition rather than more.
Which brings me to the warrantless wiretapping and telecom immunity issues, which Cindy Cohn of the EFF no doubt addressed on the Netroots Nation panel. I suspect I have little if any disagreement with her. I've long been a supporter of the EFF, as are many people involved in the management of ISPs. I strongly oppose telecom immunity for warrantless wiretapping, a complete abdication of Congress' responsibility to support the U.S. Constitution. But this shows the power of AT&T and Verizon. Not only did they get what they wanted, but the very infrastructure which was built to do this massive interception of traffic for the NSA and for law enforcement interception under the CALEA laws was built for them with assistance from government funds. All telecoms have to be compliant with CALEA (now including VoIP and broadband Internet providers), but the big incumbents who were most capable of affording it on their own got it at the lowest costs, while their competition was required to build it out at their own expense even if it never gets used.
But there are legitimate uses for deep packet inspection, for understanding the nature of the traffic on a network for management purposes, including tracking down security and abuse issues. Since it is in the hands of the end user to use encryption to protect sensitive content, I think use of DPI by network providers is reasonable for the purposes of providing better service in the same way that it's reasonable for a voice provider to intercept traffic for quality measurement purposes. It's also reasonable for interception to occur for "lawful intercept," but it should always require a court order (i.e., both executive and judicial branch approval) on reasonable grounds. The difficulty of obtaining wiretaps depicted in the television program "The Wire" is how it should be.
I've written a lot on these issues, much which can be found in this blog's Network Neutrality Index.
If any reader of this blog happens to have attended the Netroots Nation telecom panel or comes across a description of its content, please point me to it, as I'd like to see what was said. I don't have high hopes for the accuracy or reasonability of statements from Stoller and Karr, but I could be surprised, and the other panelists probably had interesting and important things to say.
(See my Blogger profile for the disclosure of my employment by Global Crossing, which is currently listed by Renesys as the #3 network provider on the Internet in terms of number of customers, ahead of AT&T and Verizon, behind Sprint and Level 3.)
UPDATE: The "Big Telecom" panel was live-blogged here. Stoller's anecdote about the Bill of Rights on metal is referring to Dean Cameron's "security edition" of the Bill of Rights, which was also promoted by Penn Jillette.