Wall Street Journal Stabs At Net Neutrality

Misses, kills journalism instead

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It’s interesting, but not surprising, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is the target of a scathing editorial by the Wall Street Journal. He’s an easy and popular target these days from both sides of just about any issue involving the FCC. He stinks. Everybody knows it.

What is surprising is that the editorial in question, which is not specifically authored and thus becomes the official stance of the WSJ as an entity, not only oversimplifies the topic at hand (surely WSJ readers are at a sufficient level to understand complex topics right?), but also sets up the WSJ as a mimic of Comcast apologists and telecom shills.

It’s not surprising, and not interesting, that a paper like the WSJ, especially since the News Corp. acquisition, would rest on its conservative, let-the-system-fix-itself, anti-regulation and probably wing-tipped heels. What is surprising and interesting is that a journalistic enterprise would allow its editorial staff to seemingly copy and paste from lobbyist talking point handouts.

Worse, the arguments made are laughable in places, myopic in others, and some are based on premises patently untrue. A simple handing off of the editorial to an opposing viewpoint pre-publishing would have helped at least strengthen the intended argument. As is, it makes it seem the editorial writer(s) never had the intention of building a fair representation.

Note I didn’t say "unbiased" representation. There’s no such thing even in straight journalism, much less editorials. This particular editorial wouldn’t matter as much if by a single author. It’d be just another opinionated jerk (like me!) spouting off in text. But this appears to be the official word from the WSJ, word that never saw the wood grain of a counter-arguer’s desk.

Let’s dissect some of it:

"In his last months as Master of the Media Universe, [Martin] seems poised to expand government regulation of the Internet." Yes, we’ve established Martin stinks. A poor conservative in general, he has tried to exert his own authority over all aspects of media for whatever personal or political reasons, from excessive action against so-called "fleeting expletives" to content regulation even on cable television, from forced a la carte cable programming to issues with media consolidation, from extreme telecom favoritism to proposing a Martin-approved free broadband network.

But as far as the situation with Comcast is concerned, which is the central issue upon which the editorial pivots, regulation of "the Internet" has nothing to do with it. It’s regulation of Internet service providers so they can’t manipulate or control what their paying customers have access to. The Internet itself isn’t to be touched.

This sentence was choice: "The FCC is by all accounts planning this week to uphold a complaint against Comcast, the cable company accused of throttling attempts to trade movies and other high-bandwidth files on its network that slow down Internet service for everyone else."

Notice it starts out true and ends debatably. Nice technique except that network management is a trumped up excuse to cover what the real issue is: Comcast denied interfering with customers’ access to specific, legal Internet services, but were proven to be doing so by independent, investigative testing. The interference among US cable providers was so extensive that only Chinese providers matched them in terms of blocked content access—cable providers in Europe, South America, and other places had no such restrictions. Network management doesn’t change the fact that Comcast selectively blocked access to content. Network neutrality, which the WSJ put in quotes as though not a serious term, is already in place when it comes to devices attaching to telephone systems, and is really about not allowing ISPs to block access to any Internet content or harmless applications. It is not, as opponents have misinformed, about disallowing ISPs from offering different speeds at different prices to consumers as they do now.

The editorial cites Comcast reached an agreement with BitTorrent, an act constituting "a private resolution of a technical dispute." This again oversimplifies things toward building support for a specific outcome. BitTorrent is just one peer-to-peer company, making it not only the preferred partner of Comcast, but one of the only p2p providers approved by Comcast. Another "network neutrality" alarm, this arrangement paves the way for these types of arrangements to continue so that AT&T’s dreams of an Internet where Yahoo can pay to have its site load faster than Google’s—or even instead of Google’s—can become a reality. Any website without the cash or will to pay ISP extortionists would be effectively offline. Schemes like these aren’t theoretical. They are AT&T’s stated intent, and Comcast’s BitTorrent arrangement is a real world example of it.

The WSJ criticizes Martin for stepping across the aisle to work with the two Democrat commissioners to "force Comcast to change its network management model to his liking." First, he’s never been shy about opposing Democrats, so why he’s suddenly on their side is a mystery. (Though it may have something to do with his apparent hatred of cable and willingness to stick it to them whenever he can while letting Verizon and AT&T slide on the other side in regards to their own censorship debacles). Second, it’s the net neutrality movement’s liking, which just happens to fall in line Martin’s ever-changing goals this time. Martin’s ineptitude was also a convenient vehicle for the WSJ to take a stab at some other ideological opponents, which is really a bit shady.

We’ll close with this paragraph, which, after reading several times becomes more and more blatant and absurd. "Mr. Martin is forcing a solution in search of a problem. But the bigger concern is that the chairman is taking a huge step toward putting in place a regulatory regime that would give the FCC, rather than Internet service providers, unprecedented control over how consumers use the Web. Mr. Martin is also greasing the skids for a potential Barack Obama Administration to take an Internet industrial policy who knows where."

The "solution in search of a problem" rhetoric has been used to death, mostly by telecom and cable lobbyists, and sometimes by the legislators whose ears are quite open due to heavy campaign financing. There is nothing currently—aside from Martin’s personal content censorship ambitions, which have been repeatedly struck down by the courts—that would give the FCC control over how consumers use the Web.

And is there anything more ridiculous than that last line about Obama? Make no mistake, for all of Martin’s many faults, he’s a Bush-man ideologue through and through, achieving his lofty position after a show of fancy lawyering for Bush’s 2000 campaign. And Obama has clearly outlined what he plans to do in terms of Internet industrial policy, so we know where that would go—maybe the WSJ should read that policy statement instead of assuming there isn’t one. What’s "unprecedented" is the Wall Street Journal shilling for Comcast and the telcos by coupling a failed FCC chairman with the Chief Anti-Conservative just to get the base readership riled up enough to push through an underlying agenda.

There are, actually, decent, agenda-free arguments against Net Neutrality, and against regulation. The WSJ presented none of them and instead allowed a poorly argued could-have-been-written by Comcast editorial to appear in their publication. Of course, News Corp. has definite interests in not only being buddies with Comcast but also in defeating network neutrality—think in terms of movies and television content and don’t forget their satellite properties—and has never been shy about being anti-regulation at whatever cost to the consumer. It’s surprising, though, how quickly those agendas have seeped into the journalistic standards of the Wall Street Journal.    


Wall Street Journal Stabs At Net Neutrality
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  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Hi Jason, it’s good to see you’re still up to your old tricks. You seem to make two basic errors here, so let’s see if I can illuminate the issues for you. Before dealing with your complaints against the editorial, one factual error really jumps out: News Corp doesn’t own DirecTV any more, they sold it to Liberty Media. Service has declined, and I cancelled and switched by TV business to Comcast. I can use a Cable-Card TiVo HD on Comcast, and it’s way better than the proprietary DirecTV DVR you have to use for HD on the service that Murdoch described as the "turd bird". So land your black helicopters and look at the editorial for what it is.

    Net neutrality advocates are concerned about "content-based discrimination." You sound the horn on this several times above.

    But the deal is this: Comcast’s management system is not "content-based", it’s "transport protocol-based." It doesn’t single out specific content for management. The tests used the Holy Bible and some other generic text files, and these files move just fine as  long as they’re transported with FTP or HTTP over the Comcast network. I’ve tested and confirmed that myself.

    Comcast applies management to any use of BitTorrent for unattended seeding during periods of high upload traffic. This is actually "transport-based discrimination", if you will. Transport-based discrimination is soundly consistent with the best traditions of the Internet. It treats FTP and HTTP differently than RTP and UDP, and has ever since Jacobson’s Algorithm was deployed in 1987.

    The FCC’s error is a failure to recognize that a transport protocol such as BitTorrent is not a form of content, it’s  a delivery system for content, and delivery systems have effects on the multiple users who share Internet access and transit links. So the ruling is flawed on a factual basis, not just on a policy and legal basis. And that’s why the courts will slap Martin and his pandering Democratic pals up the side of the head as they just did in the Superbowl case.

    And I for one will enjoy seeing that.

    • Jason Lee Miller

      I knew a guy, lived in his van and made money being a roadie, who was always talking about those black helicopters. I haven’t ever seen them myself, but have no reason other than to doubt their existence. But that’s another topic.

      I didn’t mention DirecTV, though I did mention satellite properties, which News Corp. still owns. They also have IPTV aspirations, along with everybody else. The vested interest comes from the MPAA side of the matter, which would love to see p2p crushed, and is anti-neutrality because of it. Based on the editorial, it’s apparent the WSJ has become just another vitriolic ultraconservative mouthpiece like Fox News. Think all those liberals are the enemy, too? Tragically, a man in Tennessee thought so too and ran up in a church shooting them. I’m not on either side, politically. I call situations as I see them, and this situation I’ve called as the opposite of ISPs.

      I don’t have any tricks whatsoever. What incentive would I have to perform literary magic for this issue? I don’t stand to make any money from it, like ISPs and big media companies. I shoot for what’s right, and if Comcast’s or any other ISP’s arguments don’t add up, that’s not my fault. So it’s nothing sinister on my part, like you’ve suggested.

      You, unlike the WSJ, have brought up an interesting argument against the FCC’s likely action, and you’re right, the courts are destined to decide. You give a very technical argument, and we’ll see if that flies. It still seems obvious to me Comcast was blocking access to an Internet service and that should be offsides, just the same way it is offsides for the Bells to not allow people to attach their own phones or answering machines to their networks.

      It still remains that Comcast was the only ISP proven to be doing this. Meanwhile Time Warner tests a metered system throwback to the Nineties. If cable is having a bandwidth problem, then that’s their problem. Competition might solve it for the consumer, but we know there is no competition right now, not even for TV service. I moved recently and had to switch from DirecTV to cable b/c DirecTV said they couldn’t install because of tree-line interference from every angle–that’s what I get for liking trees and birds. I have to say I despise cable, but don’t have any other options. I tapped the local phone company for my internet, just to make sure my connections weren’t messed with.

      It’s a good bet cable will have to evolve eventually or die. Their networks obviously suck and part of that is because they’ve overloaded their copper wires. Fiber, wireless could solve all that, and there is incentive to invest and no real future bandwidth crisis unless cable fails to invest in itself.

      All that aside, the issue here for me is the same issue our Constitution, when it was written, was set up to control for: manipulation of the people by more powerful (government) entities. Unfortunately, the line is blurred more and more between what is governement and what is corporate, and the people need an Internet First Amendment to make sure huge companies can’t control access. We want dumb, fattened pipes, and that’s it. We don’t want ISPs deciding what we can access.

      I don’t think that’s a trick, new or old. Cheers.

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

    I made the distinction between content and transport, and that’s not subtle or deeply technical at all. Free Press charged Comcast with enagaging on content-based discrimination, and it’s a false charge.

    We know what Comcast does: it reduces the number of TCP connections that can be used by BitTorrent in seeding mode. It does not manage BT in leeching mode or in peering mode, the way it usually runs. Only seeding, and even then it doesn’t stop it from running, it simply limits the number of connections it can maintain in an open state from 5,000 down to 2,000 or 3,000. That’s what’s actually happening, and it’s not a form of censorship, an unreasonable intrusion, or a form of corporate fascism. It’s something that makes the network work better for everyone, especially the people who share a cable with heavy BitTorrent users.

    So it’s not a content-based system, it’s a system that has the effect of lowering the priority of BitTorrent relative to web browsing and VoIP. Most engineers I know say that’s a good thing. And Chairman Martin says it’s a good thing to raise the priority of VoIP, so how can it be a bad thing to lower the priority of BitTorrent?

    So be careful what you wish for, dude, you just might get it.

    And BTW, News Corp owns no satellite properities in the US.

  • Douglas Bamlett

    Hey Jason,

    First I think your comment "you give a very technical argument" sounds like its intended to diminish Richard’s argument. While his argument may sound technical — it amounts to simple economics and a fair application of usage restrictions.

    When any ISP sets its pricing in order to sell its services and make a profit it must purchase enough bandwidth to support its user base and provide a competitive price — and still make enough profit to satisfy its obligation to shareholders — including the principals. It must, within its business model, also satisfy its users with (quality of service) QOS.

    Comcast clearly designed its business model and marketing model before bit torrent existed. As bittorrent became more popular it began to hit a critical mass of usage that amounted to an ever increasing spiral of usage without any encomomic adjustment to support that usage. Comcast had to do something to be fair to its customers who put less demand on the system.

    There is a definite and measureable difference between content restriction and speed restriction at the protocol level. Content restrictions throttle speeds (or even access) to certain locations (discriminatory) instead of overall speed (discriminates only against abuse of available speed related resources). Speed restrictions when administered at the protocol level could conceivably be used to limit content but only where the content was delivered through a protocol which nobody else was using. The Comcast situation is not an example of that.

    For example if we discover that an xxx magazine is delivered by FEDEX so we put governers on all fedex vehicles. This is a terribly inefficient way to restrict content and also infinges on the QOS of anyone else using FEDEX  — except that users could switch to UPS if they didn’t like the slowness.

    However if we found that xxx magazine had a private fleet of vehicles and we slapped a special speed restriction on those vehicles then we’d be in effect — discriminating against content.

    The situation for Comcast is that they were faced with a problem — non-bittorrent abusers were complaining to Comcast about QOS problems. They needed to improve their QOS or lose competitiveness and/or profits. If they raised prices to all their user base to pay for the bandwidth to satisfy the increasing throng of bittorrent downloaders then they’d lose market share. I call them "abusers" not because I see them as intentionally abusive but because, collecitvely, they are at the extreme top end of the usage group in a shared-subsidy access model — and collectively they are subjecting a geometrically increasing demand on network resources — but without having any increase in access fees.

    If ISP’s keep prices the same but want to improve QOS and keep their customers then they have to throttle speed OR buy more bandwidth and swallow the loss of revenue — thus shifting the subsidy of the increased demand to their investors. The economics of the situation dictate a solution is needed. The dimensioning of ISP’s networks to support the user base was never based on bittorrent being part of the access protocol model. Once bittorrent became part of the model something had to change.

    Just like the city water supply company does not dimension its water supply based on an ever increasing number of customers turning on all their taps at the same time and leaving them running 24/7 — neither can an ISP be expected not to try and slow down the excessive use of bandwidth  — when it is clearly excessive — OR charge more for the excess.

    Keep in mind that when a bit torrent client is running full bore it is downloading data at a rate much faster than anyone could watch in real time. As a user I don’t want to support bittorrent junkies 24/7 with the user fees I pay. But when I’m online I need the speed for my business services to run properly and if I need to download 10 videos at a time I should have justified that degree of usage in my own business model. Why should I be forced to subsidize bandwidth that others are using and not expect QOS myself.

    If I pay for 4 gigabits of access speed I have a reasonable expectation not to see that slow down to 300k. I should not have to pay for a 10 gbit connection just to have the 4 gbits I want — so that I can subsidize another user who is running their 4 gig connection flat out 24/7.

    For net neutrality to work and be cost effective there has to be a way of controlling speed that does not discriminate as to location, or content. Doing it at the protocol level is the most cost effective and least discriminatory way that I currently am aware of. It can be done transparently at that level without in any way restricting a users right to destination and/or associated content — and can be charged appropriately for at that level.

    The best solution is to pay for only two things:

    1. Access Speed — which is how bandwidth is now sold to customers.

    2. Protocol dimensioning. Means that if you want to run a bit torrent client with 5000 connections at peak hours — you should pay a premium for that because the bandwidth you are consuming is a measureable real cost. In many areas we pay less for off-peak electricity — why not internet bandwidth?

    Remember that any fixed rate service such as local telephone, street sweeping, insurance, etc. is always based on the "shared subsidy" concept. There are always people who place fewer demands on the service than others who are heavier users. You pay 20.00 a month for a land line and use it 5 times a month for an average of 10 minutes a call. Cost is 40 cents a minute. Your neighbor has the same service, pays 20.00 a month and talks six hours a day — cost is 1/10th of a cent a minute. Both parties are ok with that. But if some special service prompted an ever increasing percentage of the neighborhood — to talk six hours a day something — would have to give. The high volume users would have to be slapped with higher fees, or usage limits, or you’d have to convince the 40 cent a minute customers to all pay 60.00 a month to subsidize the 6 hour a day users.

    Nobody minds reasonably subsidizing other servcies — it is only when usage is abused or gets excessive that it is problematic. Users should not be disturbed if their ISP says they have entered a zone of usage that should put them in a higher usage category. It is up to the user to economically justify whether they can afford it.

    It is next to impossible to control content or access to content by dimensioning protocol speeds. Until it becomes proveable that content is being controlled by protocol level bandwidth adjustments there is currently no better way to maintain net neutrality. In fact that is precisely how it has been controlled to date.

    Dial up is an access protocol, ADSL is an access protocol, Broadband wireless is an access protocol. With those protocols we have already been paying for more speed with more money since the internet was born. ( A bittorrent client is effectively an access protocol of a somewhat unique kind — or you might say its a special application of a common access protocol.)

    Regardless — its characteristics are such that we can queue it (bittorrent client),up with 50 large files we want, and let it churn endlessly away maxing out our connection 24/7. We don’t need to attend to it in order to use it — so why are people so bent out of shape if its massive dowload speeds are throttled by half during peak periods? Why can’t an ISP just charge an extra 15.00 a month for a non-throttled bittorrent account and use the money to pay for the extra bandwidth — letting the heavy users subsidize each other?

    You are correct Richard it is a simple problem. But why did I have to take so much time explaining it? Sorry about that.

  • http://www.articlesdb.co.cc Article Submission

    Good article