May 30, 2024

Three Flavors of Net Neutrality

When the Wall Street Journal claimed on Monday that Google was secretly backtracking on its net neutrality position, commentators were properly skeptical. Tim Lee (among others) argued that the Journal misunderstood what net neutrality means, and others pointed out gaps in the Journal’s reasoning — not to mention that the underlying claim about Google’s actions was based on nonpublic documents.

Part of the difficulty in this debate is that “net neutrality” can mean different things to different people. At least three flavors of “net neutrality” are identifiable among the Journal’s critics.

Net Neutrality as End-to-End Design: The first perspective sees neutrality as an engineering principle, akin to the end-to-end principle, saying that the network’s job is to carry the traffic it is paid to carry, and decisions about protocols and priorities should be made by endpoint systems. As Tim Lee puts it, “Network neutrality is a technical principle about the configuration of Internet routers.”

Net Neutrality as Nonexclusionary Business Practices: The second perspective see neutrality as an economic principle, saying that network providers should not offer deals to one content provider unless they offer the same deal to all providers. Larry Lessig takes this position in his initial response to the journal: “The zero discriminatory surcharge rules [which Lessig supports] are just that — rules against discriminatory surcharges — charging Google something different from what a network charges iFilm. The regulation I call for is a ‘MFN’ requirement — that everyone has the right to the rates of the most favored nation.”

Net Neutrality as Content Nondiscrimination: The third perspective sees neutrality as a free speech principle, saying that network providers should not discriminate among messages based on their content. We see less of this in the response to the Journal piece, though there are whiffs of it.

There are surely more perspectives, but these are the three I see most often. Feel free to offer alternatives in the comments.

To be clear, none of this is meant to suggest that critics of the Journal piece are wrong. If Tim says that Google’s plans don’t violate Definition A of net neutrality, and Larry says that those same plans don’t violate Definition B of net neutrality, Tim and Larry may both be right. Indeed, based on what little is known about Google’s plans, they may well be net-neutral under any reasonable definition. Or not, if we fill in differently the details missing from the public reporting.

Which bring me to my biggest disappointment with the Journal story. The Journal said it had documents describing Google’s plans. Instead of writing an actually informative story, saying “Google is planning to do X”, the Journal instead wrote a gotcha story, saying “Google is planning to do some unspecified but embarrassing thing”. The Journal can do first-class reporting, when it wants to. That’s what it should have done here.


  1. [Cross-posted to Isenberg’s blog, but very relevant here]

    Alas, there aren’t one, or two, or three, or N flavors of “network neutrality.” There are at least as many as there are people who discuss it. Why? Because, as I said in an earlier posting, it’s an amorphous bundle of ideas and issues that doesn’t start with a clear definition, goal, or mission statement. Discussions of it turn into a modern day version of the 19th century poem, “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” by John Godfrey Saxe (now out of copyright, at least until Disney has the terms of copyrights extended again):

    It was six men of Hindustan
    To learning much inclined,
    Who went to see the Elephant
    (Though all of them were blind)
    That each by observation
    Might satisfy the mind.

    The first approached the Elephant
    And happening to fall
    Against his broad and sturdy side
    At once began to bawl:
    “Bless me, it seems the Elephant
    Is very like a wall”.

    The second, feeling of his tusk,
    Cried, “Ho! What have we here
    So very round and smooth and sharp?
    To me ’tis mighty clear
    This wonder of an Elephant
    Is very like a spear”.

    The third approached the animal,
    And happening to take
    The squirming trunk within his hands,
    Then boldly up and spake:
    “I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
    Is very like a snake.”

    The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
    And felt about the knee.
    “What most this wondrous beast is like
    Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
    “‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
    Is very like a tree!”

    The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
    Said: “E’en the blindest man
    Can tell what this resembles most;
    Deny the fact who can,
    This marvel of an Elephant
    Is very like a fan!”

    The Sixth no sooner had begun
    About the beast to grope,
    Than, seizing on the swinging tail
    That fell within his scope,
    “I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
    Is very like a rope!”

    And so these men of Hindustan
    Disputed loud and long,
    Each in his own opinion
    Exceeding stiff and strong,
    Though each was partly in the right
    And all were in the wrong.

    So oft in theologic wars,
    The disputants, I ween,
    Rail on in utter ignorance
    Of what each other mean,
    And prate about an Elephant
    Not one of them has seen!

    It’s time to address some of the issues and ideas individually and dismiss others completely. For example, we do not want the government legislating technical decisions, so such things as mandating “end to end design” (a fallacy, since the network would fall apart completely without intelligence in the center) are right out. The same is true of business models: to lock them into place via legislation would be to ossify the industry and kill not only innovation but also consumer choice.

    Privacy is an orthogonal issue to all of the others and doesn’t even belong in the bundle; it should be addressed completely separately. And free speech is a red herring; it’s not being threatened.

    In the words of Theodore Seuss Geisel:

    This mess is so big, and so deep, and so tall
    You can not clean it up. There is no way at all.

    For the new year, it’s time to throw the whole mess out and start from scratch. Without corporate money — such as Google’s support of misguided DC activists — driving things the wrong way.

  2. All of these defintions, for what it’s worth, are of the weak form of network neutrality, in which there is still serious inequality in content delivery among content providers with the same size outgoing pipe, but that inequality is conditioned only by money and technical chops. (Some people will pay for QoS enhancement, some won’t, but according to these definitions that’s OK as long as everyone has the opportunity to pay. Same thing for some people deciding to do colocation in smart places, others not, and so on.) Tim Berners-Lee’s version comes closest to encouraging actual parity in content delivery for providers with the same size outgoing pipe, but even that definition has plenty of loopholes.

  3. David Wainberg says

    This highlights the problem with the NN debate thus far. The reason we have competing definitions of NN is that we have not had the debate, and reached consensus on the goals of NN. Yes, we understand NN as a technical principle, or an economic principle, but most of us, I think, have a feeling for NN as a social principle, in support of social goals. For many of us, we want the internet to be fair. We want it to be dsitributed, not consolidated. We want it to be democratic, and a level playing field for all contributors.

    The problem with having this debate — our conscious or unconscious fear — is that the coalition will break down. Google’s plan, for example, makes me uneasy. It does, in effect, create a multi-tiered internet, where performance is skewed to favor the success of the big players. So, even if it does not conflict with a technical defnition of NN, it contradicts my social goals.

    This debate will be fractious, and contentious. It is, once again, a David vs. Goliath battle. It felt good for a while to be able to side with Google, and the like against the Telcos. But as the debate moves forward, we fill unfortunately find that our interests diverge from theirs as well.

    • The Wall Street Journal highlighted the real problem: at bottom, is that Google is more like the telephone companies than it is willing to admit.

      Let me explain what I mean by this. Network neutrality advocates — especially the most extreme ones, such as inside-the-beltway lobbyists Free Press and Public Knowledge (supported heavily by Google) — claim that ISPs, who are primarily in the infrastructure business but sometimes provide content and services, will use their infrastructure to privilege those content and services. But Google, which started in the content and services business, is now building out infrastructure which is exclusively devoted to delivering their content. (They say that others can deploy such infrastructure, but this is akin to saying that freedom of the press is available to anyone who can afford to own one.) So, Google — though it is coming from the opposite direction — winds up in the same place: as an infrastructure owner whose infrastructure can discriminate in favor of its own content. But there’s a big difference. The claim that the carriers might discriminate is speculation and fearmongering. However, Google has announced, point blank, that it fully intends to discriminate in a way that puts competitors at a disadvantage.

      The result is that advocates of “network neutrality” now face three conundrums. The first is that “network neutrality” is such an ill defined bundle of issues — with so many bags hung on the side by various interest groups — that it is impossible to discuss it sensibly as one issue. To date, many people who have opposed sweeping and onerous “network neutrality” regulation — including myself — have stated that they would be willing to support a narrow definition that doesn’t include all of these “bags on the side.” But this issue threatens to add yet another item to the bundle. Even for many supporters of “network neutrality,” it’s beginning to look a little too bulky.

      What’s more, some lobbyists, especially those who are strongly aligned with and supported by Google, have sought to dismiss “edge caching” as unrelated, because the issue is inconvenient and adding it would threaten their alliance with Google. But deep down, they know that it is actually more relevant than many other things which they’ve already opted to add to the bundle.

      Finally, the advocates of “network neutrality” — in particular, Free Press, Public Knowledge, and Media Access Project — have always claimed to be populist but now find themselves to be very much, and very obviously, in bed with corporate interests. If they break with those interests, they will likely lose the generous financial support of the corporations, such as Google, which have driven the “network neutrality” agenda from the start. But if they don’t break with those interests, they will have so obviously sold out that they will forever have compromised their integrity and public images.

      For all of these reasons, I would assert that it is time to dump the term “net neutrality” entirely and start afresh for the new year, hammering out a workable broadband policy unburdened by the baggage of the past. Let’s start by defining goals (such as greater broadband deployment, good quality of service, and allowing innovation both by ISPs and by content and service providers) and by addressing issues related to those goals individually. We should start with the issues on which most people agree — for example, that anticompetitive conduct should be prohibited — and act only on those issues where there is a reasonable consensus. To instead rush headlong into legislation that attempts to treat the issues as an inseparable bundle — such as last year’s S.215 — would be a very bad move and would be detrimental to the country.

  4. Since 2006, NN has primarily meant “Imposing Title 2 Telecom Regulations on Internet Service Providers.” That’s clearly where Rick Whitt’s side of Google is coming from, and it’s the thread you’ll see in all the arguments from the so-called public interest groups like Free Press/Save the Internet.

    The current hassle actually deals with whether this regulatory paradigm should also apply to companies like Akamai, Limelight, and Google who aren’t actually ISPs but are in fact vital parts of the Internet infrastructure.

    It never was a question of Internet routers in any event, as the devices that shape traffic are called “traffic shapers,” oddly enough, and don’t do routing.

    • Every router has at least one queue (possibly many queues), and every queue has some sort of priority allocation system (usually only simple FIFO) because it is physically impossible for all packets to transmit simultaneously — someone’s data must be sent first, someone’s data must wait a while. If there was never any congestion then all of the discussion would be irrelevant, but in reality there is congestion and how the congestion gets handled is the crux of what makes some strategies better and others worse.

      In addition, there are usually multiple paths between any two nodes. Each possible path will deliver a profile of jitter, cost, bandwidth and latency. It makes a lot of sense for routers to attempt to assign traffic to a path in order to best fit the profile of that traffic (presuming that routers know the type of traffic, which they can’t because no one properly respects either TOS or DIFFSERV tagging). It also makes sense for customers demanding higher performance from their traffic delivery to also pay a higher price (consider buying a first-class airline ticket, vs an economy class ticket, first class customers are treated better).

      So yes, routers do matter very much so. Traffic shapers also matter.

  5. Mitch Golden says

    I am not entirely sure I see the difference between the first definition and the third. If one considers a protocol as a form of “content”, then isn’t the first definition a subset of the third? (I.e. change the word “message” in the third definition to “packet”, and it sounds like a description of a non-discriminatory router.)

  6. This 2007 paper , by the Internet Governance Project, highlights the differences in the definition of net neutrality you mention. It suggests NN as a globally applicable governance principle, and argues that NN advocates should not get wrapped up in debate about ever evolving technical aspects of network management. Rather they should focus on how violations of net neutrality are used to engage in anti-competitive behavior (e.g., vertical integration of content and delivery by incumbents) or censorship.