On Net Neutrality

On Tuesday in Washington, DC, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the FCC lacks authority to require broadband providers to give equal treatment to all Internet traffic flowing over their networks.

This begs two questions. First, if not the FCC, then who has that authority? The second, bigger question is what does this do for the issue of Net Neutrality in the United States?

The decision was a victory for cable provider Comcast who has been accused of traffic shaping on its network. Comcast argues, perhaps correctly, that since they built the network and since they manage the network, they are in the right when it comes to what traffic can and cannot cross their network.

On the other side are users and companies, like Google, that feel that the pipes, regardless of who owns them, should be open and available to whomever wants to use them.

And therein is the rub. Third party providers of services such as VoIP have long complained that Comcast has been throttling their packets, resulting in a lower quality of service, while Comcast gave a higher QoS its own packets. This is all well and good if you are trying to keep a competing product out (or so the mantra of capitalism would go) but it causes issues when you are communicating between systems, or, as Google has argued in the past, when the route from Point A to Point E goes across the network of Point C.

Once upon a time, the communications (read telephone) network in the United States was a utility monopoly, privately run by Ma Bell (AT&T). Many of the initial phone line connections were installed on the back of a tax paid for by those who already had phone lines installed (and that tax is still collected). In the late 1970s, the late Judge Greene oversaw the cases that lead to declaring AT&T an illegal monopoly and lead us down the rabbit hole to where we are now, thirty years later.

Today, the ISPs, primarily Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Time-Warner Cable and a few others, own the pipes that are the US Internet, over which both domestic and international traffic travels at light speeds. These pipes are interconnected, interwoven and intermeshed in such a way that it is almost impossible to tell whose network traffic is passing over, through and around at any given point in time (as anyone who has tried to resolve a routing issue at that level can tell you). So the argument that it’s my network at that level is hard to swallow, at least intellectually.

This issue will of course be going to the Supreme Court. The Federal Government cannot let this go. Despite the ruling of the Appeals court, the FCC is responsible for a wide variety of communication issues, and many believe that the FCC does have the authority to regulate traffic on the Internet (at least domestically).

A bigger question though is this. What if the Supreme Court says that the FCC does not have this authority? What happens then? Will it come down to who can buy the largest number of votes on Capitol Hill? And what does that bode for the future of the Internet, and the services many of us have come to rely on?


David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack


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Everyone should pray that the

Anonymous's picture

Everyone should pray that the FCC does not regulate the ISP's. One this power is given to the FCC (government), what will they decide to regulate and censor for all consumers and ISP's. What information would they now deem to be unacceptable? What policy would they now enforce to limit the free-flow of information. This would not be good for America. So instead of honoring the Chinese with a lighting of the Empire State building, we should just go ahead and fly their communist flag over America, since, after all, our government would now have a restrictive information policy in place.


Another Anonymous's picture

The FCC (or FTC, as somebody mentioned, or whatever government agency) will not regulate *contents*, or information, but just the transportation of information in a way that is fair for everybody and prevents abuses against the consumer. It is *not* censorship, and has nothing to do with China. You seem to be confusing the concepts.

This is why broadcast tv has

Anonymous's picture

This is why broadcast tv has limits on the kind of speech and content you can view and hear. Can't say certain words and can't have too much sex or a list of other things b/c it is bad for the kids.. Sounds like China, It is bad for the people those they shouldn't see or hear it. The FCC could easily try to regulate the internet into the same experience that is good for us all.. The government doesn't need more control into our lifes or else freedom is lost. You can't force freedom on people, they have to choose it.

Half-agree, half-disagree

Another Anonymous's picture

Broadly speaking:

In broadcast TV the signal is "open" and more likely to reach unintended audiences. That's much less the case with the Internet, where you have to actively go to a site or download a file... There is little similarity between the ways information is delivered on one and the other.

Censorship is wrong in any channel, I think, because it does mean that somebody else is making your decisions for you. But, again, net neutrality is a technical thing, and does *not* add to the government's ability to censor. Much on the contrary, I'd say, because it gives the consumer a bigger number of *usable* ISPs.

Government sucks, but how do you like your ISP telling you that "no, you can't use out network to do this or that"? If the ISPs start by throttling your BitTorrent and get away with it what prevents them from throttling, let's say, VoIP? Or anything else? They will cripple their service without regard to the consumer...

Yeah, I know, we can go days discussing this without ever agreeing on anything. It is a debate with a very, very high ideological weight. So, I'll just stop here. Let's see how the story unfolds. I, for one, don't trust the ISPs and would be more comfortable if I knew the government were keeping them honest.


The best first step could be

Anonymous's picture

The best first step could be to eliminate binding service contracts as it would give the power back to the consumer to choose the best service and not the provider who spends more time trying to lock in customers than giving them the best service.


venomfang's picture

It is sad to say that most ISPs do shape their traffic. This is more for network admin sanity than anything else.

Think of the vast amount of P2P programs download GB of data every day over an ISPs network. Let's face it a lot of people do not know how to properly configure the sharing and connection options on these programs, and leave them set for maximum sharing (uploading). Can you imagine how much work it would be to have to do massive infrastructure if ISPs just to add more data backhaul links to an area (either copper\fiber\wireless), these do add up and most of these options can start to get fairly expensive (labor, equipment, rent on tower space, horizontal drilling costs).

Upstream is always a huge issue when it comes to most internet services. Imagine opening up your web browser, it sends a request for your home page... but wait the upstream on the backhauls for your area is capped due to some fool X having shared the entire Star Trek collection from his home media server, fool Y is running a streaming radio station from his home, and fool Z is doing both... In short your request to linuxjournal.com is not going to get through. This also goes the same for downloading to.

We have to remember that the ISPs own the network that allows us to connect to the internet, we just pay them for access to their network. They own the network and can put limitations to traffic per month, data rates to subs, traffic shaping on subs data flows, over usage charges, ect... Read the fine print of that service contract from your ISP, you would be surprised what you can find in there.

I do feel that VOIP should not be shaped to the point where it becomes choppy. Traffic shapping is a balancing act at best and something that should not be taken lightly when applying to any network.

Back to what's really important...

Anonymous's picture

It saddens my heart to see Linux Journal try it's hand in the political arena. I'd rather see (read) opinionated debates on Ubuntu vs Fedora or KDE vs Gnome.

This was a good decision. The

Anonymous's picture

This was a good decision. The FCC shouldn't have this sort of authority. It belongs with the FTC. Techdirt has a good writeup and followup on the matter. The first writeup points out that something like net neutrality shouldn't be rushed to get it out there, but instead should be done properly.


El Perro Loco's picture

@ Anonymous:

"It's true that there is a problem with private ownership and its misuse/abuse by the providers."


"The answer is not more regulation, but less."

If the would-be providers would fight in favor of the consumers, not in favor of themselves... well, that might work - *if* the consumers had any power. But they don't, and that's where regulation is necessary. Against an oligopoly of providers, an "oligopoly of consumers", represented by the government in the form of regulatory legislation. Isn't that the main "raison d'être" of the government - to work in favor of the *people*?

"What stands in the way of the use of other bandwidth providers competing more vigorously with the cables?"
Economic and monopolistic powers. Lobbying. Etc., etc., etc.

Who is gonna keep businesses honest? Ordinary people have to work in other things all day. They pay the government (with taxes) to do that work for them.

"Isn't that the main "raison

r198t's picture

"Isn't that the main "raison d'être" of the government - to work in favor of the *people*?"

In some Utopian perfect world, perhaps. They could just as easily get out of our way.

I do not believe a government should exist to regulate every waking moment of my life. I find it refreshing that a court has told the government there is something it can't control even if the alleged reason for intervention is to create their idea of a "level playing field".


Ron, I don't like government

El Perro Loco's picture


I don't like government more than you do. I would *love* to live in a world where anarchy - in the noble sense of the world - could work.

However, in our poor reality, we are very far from Utopia. Entities other than the government - big business - do not play fair. They band together ("cartels", "trusts", "lock-ins", etc.) in an attempt to suck the last drop of blood of the consumer but providing him/her with just an absolute minimum. If nothing stops them, that's what they will do. It's their nature.

You see, the idealized capitalism would not be predatory because of the often-forgotten Consumer (with a capital "C"). (S)he is the other side of the capitalist equation. The consumer, powerful and well informed, would easily go to the competition as soon as (s)he noticed (s)he was being treated unfairly by a company (s)he was doing business with. Not in the real world, where competition is far from perfect and consumers are not full-time economic *active* agents, and competition leaves *a lot* to be desired.

So, In an Utopian society, with all the forces perfectly balanced, there would be no need for government, Consumers would have a voice and businesses would have to play by the unwritten rules of capitalism. But, I'm sure you'll agree, no Utopia for us.

Of course, even in our real world, there has to be moderation. On both sides: government and businesses. Some defects on one side must be counteracted by defects on the other side.

I do not approve of an all-controlling, all-invasive, all-knowing, all-powerful government. However, today those attributes apply more to companies than to the governments - at least in the good, ol' USA.

If you are just a small business owner, honest, trying to make a living by providing good services or products to people, you have my sympathy. Big Telcos don't.


FredR's picture

If the FCC were smart, they'd find a way to "route around" this issue. I think Net Neutrality is something that should come naturally, that does not need to be imposed or enforced. I do believe that when Comcast was modifying their network to handle Bittorrent traffic, it was probably from immense abuse from their users. So in an odd way, I agree with the ruling. It's not as if they were doing something underhanded to gain any advantage. They were probably dealing with a specific issue they were having. So in this specific instance, Comcast was probably in the right.

But now back to my initial statement. If the FCC lost this battle, they can still win the war. By supporting more broadband options, they can trump any amount of Comcast's attempt to modify their network. If Comcast's network is not bittorrent-friendly, then a consumer should have the choice of one of four other local broadband companies. This would ensure that perhaps one of the others were. And if the issue with the protocol was that Comcast's equipment was weak (and not that they were playing into the whims of the *IAA's of the country), you'd probably find them firming up their infrastructure pretty quick.

The internet is structured, and is tiered. Comcast is not a backbone provider by far. They still have to purchase that piece of the network. And the backbone providers are not in the business of modifying traffic flow, as they're in the "core". Comcast is just the distributor.

So let them police their onramps. In the fullest spirit of the internet itself, we would find ways to route around the issue. I don't think the FCC has the right to "pick on" one specific company, but rather move the incentive for Comcast towards the right thing, and help the american consumer with their options. This would serve their ultimate goals without slowing themselves down in the process by fighting the little fights.

-- FLR or flrichar is a superfan of Linux Journal, and goofs around in the LJ IRC Channel


ronwww's picture

Actually, Comcast is so big it is also one of the back bone providers, As are AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner and the other really big ISPs. And they all have an interest in promoting their respective content partners. The main thing that is keeping them from walling themselves off is that their content partners want access to the customers of the other ISPs. Sure, they could get access by being a customer of all the major ISPs, but then they would loose the benefits of partnering with an ISP.

Net Neut

Rick F's picture

Mr. Lane, you stated it correctly at the beginning of your article, that Comcast should have control of the networks they built. But later you state that it is "impossible to tell who’s network traffic is passing over." SO WHAT ?! That doesn't remove Comcast's right to protect and profit from an infrastructure that they paid for and built.

At the end of your article you ask if it will come down to who can buy the largest number of votes on Capitol Hill. Mr. Lane, it should come down to who can buy what they use, as in bandwidth. You probably agree with Obama on redistribution of wealth and it's a sad state this country has become when people like you are demanding to use and control that which you have made no investment in.

Let's suppose hypothetically Mr. Lane, that I have no car but you do. Well, that means you have much more freedom of mobility than I do. How about if I come to your house and demand equal use of your car so that you and I have equal mobility? Oh, and make sure the gas tank is full! Internet use is not a right. I suppose you frown upon Life, liberty, and the PURSUIT of happiness because it does not guarantee equal outcomes for those things that you decide to apply your communist view of equality.


Who don't make an investment?

corbintechboy's picture

"You probably agree with Obama on redistribution of wealth and it's a sad state this country has become when people like you are demanding to use and control that which you have made no investment in"

When I purchase and pay a monthly fee to my ISP, I do indeed have an investment.

I think the socialism ideology is being pushed to far! Socialism is indeed the sharing of wealth, when do we draw the line? Do we stop driving on certain roads if we did not invest as much as someone with more money then ourselves? When our cell phones don't work for a day should we not call and try and get it working even though we did not build the towers that supply our service?

The way I feel about the net is that the job of my ISP is to act only as a gateway to the net. I pay a fee in order to access the same net that everyone in the USA has access. I don't feel it is the job of my ISP to regulate the net in any way! The job they have to the consumer is to provide a service linked to a larger service and this should be free of throttles and such.


El Perro Loco's picture


About your hypothetical car:

Let's suppose the company that sold you your car forces you somehow (GPS + remote control?) to only go to certain places, at certain speeds, at the company's whim. Let's also suppose that the company doesn't tell you about that upfront, before it sells you the car. Let's also suppose that you cannot buy a car elsewhere because the company that sold you yours has a monopoly in the car sales and you can only buy from it.

How would you feel about it? Wouldn't you feel cheated and entraped?

That's not a far-fetched scenario. That's what happens today with broadband. The consumer is screwed.

The U.S. *supposedly* embraces capitalism, but there is no actual competition - nor perfect information - to make the market work as capitalism preaches. Net Neutrality is much more a step towards a *perfect* *capitalism* than it is towards communism. Net Neutrality assures competition on the basis of quality and choice and service to the consumer - which makes your attempt at characterizing it as "communist" a blatant logic error.

If only it was so simple

David Lane's picture

The problem is with the interconnect and who is paying for what. Since, every time I pay my phone bill, I am subsidizing the installation of phone lines in rural America, I should have a right to use those lines, following your argument. Also, I would not be allowed to, if I have to transfer across someone else's network to get there, following your argument. And in point of fact, if the lines are installed by AT&T and I am a Verizon customer, how much am I allowed to use those lines based on what I pay in user fees? Or what capacity should have have access to because of what I have paid in past user fees?

But, more importantly, for example, what is to prevent Comcast from blocking access to the Linux Journal web site because it is hosted at a facility that uses Time-Warner? Absurd? Nope. Based on your argument.

And that is the issue. When you interconnect utilities, and we are talking about UTILITIES, who owns, who access and who pays all comes out in the wash. The alternative is disconnected islands and an INCREASED cost to the end-user AND the company providing the service AND the service providers that want to connect.

Will the Internet cease to function? No, but it sure will be a lot less useful. At least in the United States.

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack

Net Neutrality

Anonymous's picture

So, if the old order of a MaBell monopoly had prevailed, can you really imagine that we would have the internet that we have now? Probably not. We'd still be using those black bricks for communication.

It's true that there is a problem with private ownership and its misuse/abuse by the providers. The answer is not more regulation, but less. What stands in the way of the use of other bandwidth providers competing more vigorously with the cables?

The real question is how does the infrastructure get paid for? We have a system of tollways, freeways and public ways for travel. Each serves a population of users. We have reached a point in the internet highway that is the same. I pay a higher premium for faster access because that suits me. There are slower rates for others and there is still a dial-up for others.

I say, keep the government out of our hair.

Re: Paying higher premiums for more service

PatrickDickey's picture

I think part of the issue was that Comcast was throttling other providers traffic as well as the bittorrents. So, your statement about "I pay a higher premium for faster access because that suits me. There are slower rates for others and there is still a dial-up for others." doesn't really hold water.

Why? Because you pay your provider a higher premium for faster service. But, if your traffic goes through another provider's network (Comcast in this example), what's stopping that other provider from slowing down your traffic in favor of their own? THAT is what Net Neutrality is about. Saying "You cannot purposely slow down traffic that didn't originate from your network or isn't destined for your network." Along with saying "You cannot slow down traffic because of the potential for it being used in an illegal or abusive manner."

Don't agree with the second part of my statement? Well, would you rather have to download the next version of Ubuntu off of their servers (and deal with overloading) or off of bittorrents? Because if you're on Comcast, the overloaded server may be faster. Why? Because all bittorrent traffic must be for violating the RIAA's copyrights, so they'll slow it down (even the legal and recommended use for downloading Ubuntu).

Have a great day:)

Net Neutrality

Anonymous's picture

Thanks Patrick.

My difficulty is that giving government regulators a foot in the door under the guise of "net neutrality" will have real and, I think, damaging consequences. What starts out as "consumer friendly" eventually ends up with the larger players running the regulatory agency. The FCC with this power will eventually be owned by the oligopoly and they'll limit the entry of new and better technologies.

You cite RIAA as a reason that a provider may limit traffic. Isn't that government with its big foot in the music business? It is this intrusion that allows the big companies to squeeze out the independents, etc.

I still prefer to see the private market, as cumbersome as this may seem, work this out. If Comcast behaves badly, then there are alternatives for most of the US market. I have TW, but ATT comes knocking on my door all the time. If traffic blocking by Comcast becomes a problem for TW customers, then TW will have an incentive to fix this with Comcast. Mutually Assured Destruction kept nuclear war at bay for 6 decades. Certainly Comcast can't block the traffic of TW without TW taking action.

Have a great day.

Plenty of examples

David Lane's picture

If there were not plenty of examples of government getting bandwidth right (I will cite Japan as one),I might agree with you. Further, it is possible that the United States would already have higher bandwidth speeds that it currently does and would not have to dink around with marginal technologies like Broadband over Powerline (BPL), ADSL, and ISDN for providing reliable, integrated networking. And I would argue, that our wireless broadband would be something to celebrate, rather than curse.

However, we are stuck with the model we have for now and it is likely that we will not see a realistic resolution for some time to come.

The only saving grace right now is that there is some (limited) choice in providers. Even if that choice is largely an illusion.

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack

Bandwidth issues

Treah's picture

Yes your absolutely correct. The choice in some places is really a joke. I am fortunate to live in a large city so I actually do have choices who I go though. Other countries have had better bandwidth then the US for a long time due to them not having to deal with providers little coral of control. I for one think that if AT&T never got broken up we would have a much better network today. But in the same breath there would be issues with them working with the slimy likes of the MPAA and limit traffic. The only real solution is either control over the network or have real choices. If we ever got off the ground with real power-line networking the cable companies and other providers would have a real problem and may even lessen their grip. But for now who knows what will happen with the internet, the dot com bubble burst, AT&T regained control of a large part of the network, and everyone is trying to just survive in a hostile net environment. The worst outcome will be walled gardens occur like AOL, and if the people of this country continue to subscribe to the idea that someone should be monitoring there children or protecting them from online threats rather then them doing it themselves then that just may as well happen.