Net Neutrality Gets Its Hearing

STANFORD, Calif. -- Net neutrality fans staged what was essentially a rally at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) en banc hearing yesterday, as audience members cheered the opinions they liked without getting rebuttal from Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) or other major operators.

Along the way, spectators got to hear an accusation that Comcast blocks peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic 24 hours a day, rather than just slowing it down occasionally, and a proclamation by Stanford professor Lawrence Lessig that the goal of any FCC legislation should be to bring bandwidth down to commodity status.

The event, held at Stanford University Thursday afternoon, was like a party for the Net neutrality camp. Comments favoring Net neutrality met with hearty applause and occasional hoots. A couple of spectators went so far as to boo the two FCC Commissioners who favor more market-driven approaches.

That's a reversal from the previous hearing, held at Harvard University. There, the audience was seeded with Comcast recruits. This time, Comcast didn't show at all -- nor did any other major carriers. (See FCC Mulling New Internet Rules and Comcast Skipping FCC Funfest.)

While Stanford's Dinkelspiel Auditorium never filled past about 70 percent capacity, there certainly weren't any sleepers in the house this time.

Stanford assigned a couple of campus security guards to the event, but they didn't have much to do. No protests erupted beyond a singing group and a few students handing out buttons.

The day started with all five FCC Commissioners, including chairman Kevin Martin, making some opening remarks, mostly restating well known positions. Here's a summary, showing two Commissioners firmly in favor of Net neutrality legislation, and two against:

Table 1: FCC Scorecard
FCC Commissioner Stance* Grandstanding Quote**
Michael Copps Net neutrality "It's going to be a major fight with powerful forces on the other side, and we will all have to work."
Jonathan Adelstein Net neutrality "Any network provider that treads on the freedom of the public to have access to the Internet does so at its peril, and any government that looks the other way does so at its peril as well."
Deborah Taylor Tate Market forces "Technology and the marketplace seem to be responding to appropriate oversight mechanisms."
Robert McDowell Market forces "[We should think before] rushing to codify a solution that may create more problems than it solves."
Kevin Martin, chairman Unknown
* 'Stance' refers to whether the commissioner believes the FCC should enact net neutrality legislation or leave the issue to market forces. **Quotes taken from commissioner statements at the hearing.

Before the first panel of testimonials began, Stanford's Lessig gave some introductory remarks, fulfilling his role as superhero to Net neutrality backers.

Lessig actually gave some definition to "Net neutrality," noting that it's not the same as treating all bits the same way. There's such a thing as "productive discrimination" that can help spread broadband growth, he said. (Law enforcement was another, separate example; FCC Commissioner Deborah Tate pointed out that deep packet inspection can be used for tracking down illegal activities, such as child pornography.)

What Lessig does support are what he calls zero-discriminatory surcharge rules -- meaning it's OK for an operator to charge more to certain entities such as YouTube, but only if the same charge applies to all like entities. That kind of rule is where he thinks FCC legislation should begin.

The FCC's goal in Net neutrality legislation, though, should be to make broadband into a commodity, creating a situation "where there's fundamental competition in the provisioning of this commodity, driving the price of that commodity down." This possibility "terrifies the providers," he acknowledged.

But why legislate, as opposed to letting the market sort out the problems? Because business's job is to increase shareholder wealth, not to ensure the best outcome for the public, Lessig said. In that sense, a company is like a man-eating tiger: "The tiger has a nature. The nature is not one that you would trust with your child."

Then came time for a panel of witnesses to give the Commission their input on Net neutrality.

Sometimes this took the form of outright lobbying, as when Rick Carnes, president of the Songwriters Guild of America, discussed what he called the career-ruining impact of file sharing on musicians.

A couple of technical experts were present too. Jon Peha from Carnegie Mellon University gave some technical testimony to debunk Comcast's claims that it's only slowing, and not blocking, P2P traffic. George Ou, a networking consultant, countered the Net neutrality crowd by explaining how P2P users can disproportionately hog traffic. In Japan, he said, 1 percent of the users represent 47 percent of the traffic consumption.

Software engineer Robb Topolski became the star of the show, however. He's the one who first discovered Comcast's throttling of P2P traffic, arguably setting the stage for these hearings to happen in the first place. His discovery came after investigating why he was having trouble sharing old wax-cylinder recordings of music.

Topolski believes Comcast's throttling mechanism relies on sending "reset" packets that terminate TCP sessions. That means that Comcast is killing off those connections, rather than simply slowing them, as the MSO has claimed.

That accusation is still under scrutiny, however. A group at the University of Colorado corroborated the reset-packets story but had to take back those findings earlier this month. (See Back to the Drawing Board .)

"The fact that at this stage in the game we don't know much about what they do is very interesting in itself," Peha commented.

Whatever Comcast is doing, Topolski said he's quite sure the MSO is still doing it, despite the publicity this case has gotten, and that it's happening at all hours of the day. His evidence: A couple of days before the Harvard hearing, he checked his computer at 1:45 a.m., finding that "75 percent of the connections that were established by my client were being torn down by these reset packets."

— Craig Matsumoto, West Coast Editor, Light Reading

palaeozoic 12/5/2012 | 3:42:56 PM
re: Net Neutrality Gets Its Hearing
Why is it that the vast majority of those in favor of internet regulation (heretofore known as net neutrality) do not and have not built or operatedGă÷or risked capital onGă÷any type of network infrastructure? Similarly, why is it that, for the most part, those in favor of free market approaches (otherwise known as capitalists), actually do build, operate, or invest in network infrastructure?

Why is it that the few Silicon Valley types actually in favor of internet regulation (pretty much limited to the inhabitants of Googleville) seek out help from what many view as the bastion of ludditismGă÷Washington DC? Silicon Valley largely exists as a statement to lumbering bureaucrats: Găúgive us venture capital, caffeine, and pizza and we can produce anything; we donGăÍt need handouts from the public trough.Găą Seeing these same types trek to DC, hat in hand, seeking help from life-forms they once despised is akin to, well, Hillary Clinton seeking foreign policy advise from Dick Cheney.

gigeguy 12/5/2012 | 3:42:54 PM
re: Net Neutrality Gets Its Hearing This is the best comment I've seen on net neutrality since the whole thing started.
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