July 22, 2024

New Internet? No Thanks.

Yesterday’s New York Times ran a piece, “Do We Need a New Internet?” suggesting that the Internet has too many security problems and should therefore be rebuilt.

The piece has been widely criticized in the technical blogosphere, so there’s no need for me to pile on. Anyway, I have already written about the redesign-the-Net meme. (See Internet So Crowded, Nobody Goes There Anymore.)

But I do want to discuss two widespread misconceptions that found their way into the Times piece.

First is the notion that today’s security problems are caused by weaknesses in the network itself. In fact, the vast majority of our problems occur on, and are caused by weaknesses in, the endpoint devices: computers, mobile phones, and other widgets that connect to the Net. The problem is not that the Net is broken or malfunctioning, it’s that the endpoint devices are misbehaving — so the best solution is to secure the endpoint devices. To borrow an analogy from Gene Spafford, if people are getting mugged at bus stops, the solution is not to buy armored buses.

(Of course, there are some security issues with the network itself, such as vulnerability of routing protocols and DNS. We should work on fixing those. But they aren’t the problems people normally complain about — and they aren’t the ones mentioned in the Times piece.)

The second misconception is that the founders of the Internet had no plan for protecting against the security attacks we see today. Actually they did have a plan which was simple and, if executed flawlessly, would have been effective. The plan was that endpoint devices would not have remotely exploitable bugs.

This plan was plausible, but it turned out to be much harder to execute than the founders could have foreseen. It has become increasingly clear over time that developing complex Net-enabled software without exploitable bugs is well beyond the state of the art. The founders’ plan is not working perfectly. Maybe we need a new plan, or maybe we need to execute the original plan better, or maybe we should just muddle through. But let’s not forget that there was a plan, and it was reasonable in light of what was known at the time.

As I have said before, the Internet is important enough that it’s worthwhile having people think about how it might be redesigned, or how it might have been designed differently in the first place. The Net, like any large human-built institution, is far from perfect — but that doesn’t mean that we would be better off tearing it down and starting over.

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.

Economic Growth, Censorship, and Search Engines

Economic growth depends on an ability to access relevant information. Although censorship prevents access to certain information, the direct consequences of censorship are well-known and somewhat predictable. For example, blocking access to Falun Gong literature is unlikely to harm a country’s consumer electronics industry. On the web, however, information of all types is interconnected. Blocking a web page might have an indirect impact reaching well beyond that page’s contents. To understand this impact, let’s consider how search results are affected by censorship.

Search engines keep track of what’s available on the web and suggest useful pages to users. No comprehensive list of web pages exists, so search providers check known pages for links to unknown neighbors. If a government blocks a page, all links from the page to its neighbors are lost. Unless detours exist to the page’s unknown neighbors, those neighbors become unreachable and remain unknown. These unknown pages can’t appear in search results — even if their contents are uncontroversial.

When presented with a query, search engines respond with relevant known pages sorted by expected usefulness. Censorship also affects this sorting process. In predicting usefulness, search engines consider both the contents of pages and the links between pages. Links here are like friendships in a stereotypical high school popularity contest: the more popular friends you have, the more popular you become. If your friend moves away, you become less popular, which makes your friends less popular by association, and so on. Even people you’ve never met might be affected.

“Popular” web pages tend to appear higher in search results. Censoring a page distorts this popularity contest and can change the order of even unrelated results. As more pages are blocked, the censored view of the web becomes increasingly distorted. As an aside, Ed notes that blocking a page removes more than just the offending material. If censors block Ed’s site due to an off-hand comment on Falun Gong, he also loses any influence he has on information security.

These effects would typically be rare and have a disproportionately small impact on popular pages. Google’s emphasis on the long tail, however, suggests that considerable value lies in providing high-quality results covering even less-popular pages. To avoid these issues, a government could allow limited individuals full web access to develop tools like search engines. This approach seems likely to stifle competition and innovation.

Countries with greater censorship might produce lower-quality search engines, but Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and others can provide high-quality search results in those countries. These companies can access uncensored data, mitigating the indirect effects of censorship. This emphasizes the significance of measures like the Global Network Initiative, which has a participant list that includes Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft. Among other things, the initiative provides guidelines for participants regarding when and how information access may be restricted. The effectiveness of this specific initiative remains to be seen, but such measures may provide leading search engines with greater leverage to resist arbitrary censorship.

Search engines are unlikely to be the only tools adversely impacted by the indirect effects of censorship. Any tool that relies on links between information (think social networks) might be affected, and repressive states place themselves at a competitive disadvantage in developing these tools. Future developments might make these points moot: in a recent talk at the Center, Ethan Zuckerman mentioned tricks and trends that might make censorship more difficult. In the meantime, however, governments that censor information may increasingly find that they do so at their own expense.

How Fragile Is the Internet?

With Barack Obama’s election, we’re likely to see a revival of the network neutrality debate. Thus far the popular debate over the issue has produced more heat than light. On one side have been people who scoff at the very idea of network neutrality, arguing either that network neutrality is a myth or that we’d be better off without it. On the other are people who believe the open Internet is hanging on by its fingernails. These advocates believe that unless Congress passes new regulations quickly, major network providers will transform the Internet into a closed network where only their preferred content and applications are available.

One assumption that seems to be shared by both sides in the debate is that the Internet’s end-to-end architecture is fragile. At times, advocates on both sides debate seem to think that AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast have big levers in their network closets labeled “network neutrality” that they will set to “off” if Congress doesn’t stop them. In a new study for the Cato Institute, I argue that this assumption is unrealistic. The Internet has the open architecture it has for good technical reasons. The end-to-end principle is deeply embedded in the Internet’s architecture, and there’s no straightforward way to change it without breaking existing Internet applications.

One reason is technical. Advocates of regulation point to a technology called deep packet inspection as a major threat to the Internet’s open architecture. DPI allows network owners to look “inside” Internet packets, reconstructing the web page, email, or other information as it comes across the wire. This is an impressive technology, but it’s also important to remember its limitations. DPI is inherently reactive and brittle. It requires human engineers to precisely describe each type of traffic that is to be blocked. That means that as the Internet grows ever more complex, more and more effort would be required to keep DPI’s filters up to date. It also means that configuration problems will lead to the accidental blocking of unrelated traffic.

The more fundamental reason is economic. The Internet works as well as it does precisely because it is decentralized. No organization on Earth has the manpower that would have been required to directly manage all of the content and applications on the Internet. Networks like AOL and Compuserve that were managed that way got bogged down in bureaucracy while they were still a small fraction of the Internet’s current size. It is not plausible that bureaucracies at Comcast, AT&T, or Verizon could manage their TCP/IP networks the way AOL ran its network a decade ago.

Of course what advocates of regulation fear is precisely that these companies will try to manage their networks this way, fail, and screw the Internet up in the process. But I think this underestimates the magnitude of the disaster that would befall any network provider that tried to convert their Internet service into a proprietary network. People pay for Internet access because they find it useful. A proprietary Internet would be dramatically less useful than an open one because network providers would inevitably block an enormous number of useful applications and websites. A network provider that deliberately broke a significant fraction of the content or applications on its network would find many fewer customers willing to pay for it. Customers that could switch to a competitor would. Some others would simply cancel their home Internet service and rely instead on Internet access at work, school, libraries, etc. And many customers that had previously taken higher-speed Internet service would downgrade to basic service. In short, even in an environment of limited competition, reducing the value of one’s product is rarely a good business strategy.

This isn’t to say that ISPs will never violate network neutrality. A few have done so already. The most significant was Comcast’s interference with the BitTorrent protocol last year. I think there’s plenty to criticize about what Comcast did. But there’s a big difference between interfering with one networking protocol and the kind of comprehensive filtering that network neutrality advocates fear. And it’s worth noting that even Comcast’s modest interference with network neutrality provoked a ferocious response from customers, the press, and the political process. The Comcast/BitTorrent story certainly isn’t going to make other ISPs think that more aggressive violations of network neutrality would be a good business strategy.

So it seems to me that new regulations are unnecessary to protect network neutrality. They are likely to be counterproductive as well. As Ed has argued, defining network neutrality precisely is surprisingly difficult, and enacting a ban without a clear definition is a recipe for problems. In addition, there’s a real danger of what economists call regulatory capture—that industry incumbents will find ways to turn regulatory authority to their advantage. As I document in my study, this is what happened with 20th-century regulation of the railroad, airline, and telephone industries. Congress should proceed carefully, lest regulations designed to protect consumers from telecom industry incumbents wind up protecting incumbents from competition instead.

Bandwidth Needs and Engineering Tradeoffs

Tom Lee wonders about a question that Ed has pondered in the past: how much bandwidth does one human being need?

I’m suspicious of estimates of exploding per capita bandwidth consumption. Yes, our bandwidth needs will continue to increase. But the human nervous system has its own bandwidth limits, too. Maybe there’ll be one more video resolution revolution — HDTV2, let’s say (pending the invention of a more confusing acronym). But to go beyond that will require video walls — they look cool in Total Recall, but why would you pay for something larger than your field of view? — or three-dimensional holo-whatnots. I’m sure the latter will be popularized eventually, but I’ll probably be pretty old and confused by then.

The human fovea has a finite number of neurons, and we’re already pretty good at keeping them busy. Personally, I think that household bandwidth use is likely to level off sometime in the next decade or two — there’s only so much data that a human body can use. Our bandwidth expenses as a percentage of income will then start to fall, both because the growth in demand has slowed and because income continues to rise, but also because the resource itself will continue to get cheaper as technology improves.

When thinking about this question, I think it’s important to remember that engineering is all about trade-offs. It’s often possible to substitute one kind of computing resource for another. For example, compression replaces bandwidth or storage with increased computation. Similarly, caching substitutes storage for bandwidth. We recently had a talk by Vivek Pai, a researcher here at Princeton who has been using aggressive caching algorithms to improve the quality of Internet access in parts of Africa where bandwidth is scarce.

So even if we reach the point where our broadband connections are fat enough to bring in as much information as the human nervous system can process, that doesn’t mean that more bandwidth wouldn’t continue to be valuable. Higher bandwidth means more flexibility in the design of online applications. In some cases, it might make more sense to bring raw data into the home and do calculations locally. In other cases, it might make more sense to pre-render data on a server farm and bring the finished image into the home.

One key issue is latency. People with cable or satellite TV service are used to near-instantaneous, flawless video content, which is difficult to stream reliably over a packet-switched network. So the television of the future is likely to be a peer-to-peer client that downloads anything it thinks its owner might want to see and caches it for later viewing. This isn’t strictly necessary, but it would improve the user experience. Likewise, there may be circumstances where users want to quickly load up their portable devices with several gigabytes of data for later offline viewing.

Finally, and probably most importantly, higher bandwidth allows us to economize on the time of the engineers building online applications. One of the consistent trends in the computer industry has been towards greater abstraction. There was a time when everyone wrote software in machine language. Now, a lot of software is written in high-level languages like Java, Perl, or Python that run slower but make life a lot easier for programmers. A decade ago, people trying to build rich web applications had to waste a lot of time optimizing their web applications to achieve acceptable performance on the slow hardware of the day. Today, computers are fast enough that developers can use high-level frameworks that are much more powerful but consume a lot more resources. Developers spend more time adding new features and less time trying to squeeze better performance out of the features they already have. Which means users get more and better applications.

The same principle is likely to apply to increased bandwidth, even beyond the point where we all have enough bandwidth to stream high-def video. Right now, web developers need to pay a fair amount of attention to whether data is stored on the client or the server and how to efficiently transmit it from one place to another. A world of abundant bandwidth will allow developers to do whatever makes the most sense computationally without worrying about the bandwidth constraints. Of course, I don’t know exactly what those frameworks will look like or what applications they will enable, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think that we’ll be able to continue finding uses for higher bandwidth for a long time.