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August 11 2010

What I get and don't get about the Google/Verizon proposal

Nobody knew for a long time what Google and Verizon were cooking up on
the network neutrality front, and after the release of their brief,
two-page roadmap (posted href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/35599242/Verizon-Google-Legislative-Framework-Proposal">On
Scribd as a PDF, among other places) nobody still knows. All the
usual Internet observers have had their say, and in general the
assessment is negative.

My first reaction was to ignore the whole thing, mainly because the
language of the agreement didn't match any Internet activity I could
recognize. Some of the false notes struck:

  • The Consumer Protections section keeps using the term "lawful" as if
    there was a regulatory regime on the Internet. Not even the people
    regularly accused of trying to extend government control over the
    Internet (ICANN, WSIS, and the ITU) believe they can define what's
    lawful and make people stick to it.

    If I can send and receive only lawful content, who do Google and
    Verizon think can stop me from exchanging child pornography or
    instructions to blow up buildings? What, in turn, distinguishes lawful
    applications and services from unlawful ones (outside of Saudi Arabia
    and the United Arab Emirates)?

    Deduction: This passage represents no meaningful or enforceable rules,
    but is thrown in to make regulators feel there's a policy where in
    fact there is none.

  • The Transparency section strews around nice, general statements no one
    could complain about--don't we all want our services to tell us what
    they're doing?--but the admonitions are too general to interpret or
    apply.

    For instance, Apple is adamant about its right to determine what apps
    are available to iPhone and iPad buyers. Is that transparency?
    Apparently not, because every Apple developer gnaws his fingernails
    waiting to hear whether and when his app will be accepted into the App
    Store. But I don't see language in the Google/Verizon transparency
    section that covers the App Store at all. They might well say it's not
    networking issue.

    Fine, let's turn to networking. The carriers maintain that they need
    flexibility and a certain degree of secrecy to combat abuses such as
    spam; see for instance my blog href="http://www.oreillynet.com/onlamp/blog/2008/04/consider_the_economics_in_netw.html">Consider
    the economics in network neutrality. Squaring this complex
    issue--which is covered by the Google/Verizon in the next item on
    Network Management--with transparency is a dilemma.

    Deduction: we can all say we're transparent and feel good, but life is
    too complex for authorities to be totally transparent about what
    they're transparent about.

  • The worst passage in my view is the one in the Regulatory Authority
    section assigning authority to the FCC for "broadband." That
    ill-defined term, used far too much in Washington, tends to appear in
    the context of universal service. One can regulate broadband by such
    things as providing incentives to build more networks, but the
    Regulatory Authority section sidesteps the more basic questions of who
    gets to regulate the building, interconnecting, and routing through
    networks.

    Deduction: Google and Verizon put this in to encourage the government
    to continue pouring money into the current telcos and cable companies
    so they can build more high-speed networks, but its effect on
    regulation is nil.

Not too inspiring on first impression, but because so many other
people raised such a brouhaha over the Google/Verizon announcement, I
decided to think about it a bit more. And I actually ended up feeling
good about one aspect. The proposal is really a big concession to the
network neutrality advocates. I had been feeling sour about proposals
for network neutrality because, as nice as they sound in the abstract,
the devil is in the details. Network management for spam and other
attacks provides one example.

But the Google/Verizon announcement explicitly denounces
discrimination and mandates adherence to Internet standards. (Of
course, some Internet standards govern discrimination.) It seems to me
that, after this announcement, no network provider can weep and wring
its hands and claim that it would be unable to do business on a
non-discriminatory basis. And network neutrality advocates can cite
this document for support.

But as others have pointed out, the concession granted in the
"Non-Discrimination Requirement" section is ripped away by the
"Additional Online Services" section to "traffic prioritization." This
makes it clear that the "services" offered in that section reach deep
into the network infrastructure where they can conflict directly with
public Internet service. Unless someone acknowledges the contradiction
between the two sections and resolves it in a logical manner, this
document becomes effectively unusable.

What about the other pesky little exemption in the proposal--wireless
networks? Certainly, a lot of computing is moving to mobile devices.
But wireless networks really are special. Not only are they hampered
by real limits on traffic--the networks being shared and having
limited spectrum--but users have limited tolerance for unwanted
content and for fidgeting around with their devices. They don't want
to perform sophisticated control over transmission over content; they
need someone to do it for them.

Anyway, fiber is always going to provide higher bandwidth than
wireless spectrum. So I don't believe wireless will become
dominant. It will be a extremely valuable companion to us as we walk
through the day, saving data about ourselves and getting information
about our environment, but plenty of serious work will go on over the
open Internet.

So in short, I disdain the Google/Verizon agreement from an editor's
point of view but don't mind it as a user. In general, I have nothing
against parties in a dispute (here, the telephone companies who want
to shape traffic and the Internet sites who don't want them to)
conducting talks to break down rigid policy positions and arrive at
compromises. The Google/Verizon talks are fraught with implications,
of course, because Google is a wireless provider and Verizon
distributes lots of phones with Google's software and services. So I
take the announcement as just one stake in the ground along a large
frontier. I don't see the proposal being adopted in any regulatory
context--it's too vague and limited--but it's interesting for what it
says about Google and Verizon.

February 05 2010

One hundred eighty degrees of freedom: signs of how open platforms are spreading

I was talking recently with Bob Frankston, who has a href="http://frankston.com/public/Bob_Frankston_Bio.asp">distinguished
history in computing that goes back to work on Multics, VisiCalc,
and Lotus Notes. We were discussing some of the dreams of the Internet
visionaries, such as total decentralization (no mobile-system walls,
no DNS) and bandwidth too cheap to meter. While these seem impossibly
far off, I realized that computing and networking have come a long way
already, making things normal that not too far in the past would have
seemed utopian.



Flat-rate long distance calls

I remember waiting past my bedtime to make long-distance calls, and
getting down to business real quick to avoid high charges.
Conventional carriers were forced to flat-rate pricing by competition
from VoIP (which I'll return to later in the blog). International
calls are still overpriced, but with penny-per-minute cards available
in any convenience store, I don't imagine any consumers are paying
those high prices.



Mobile phone app stores

Not that long ago, the few phones that offered Internet access did so
as a novelty. Hardly anybody seriously considered downloading an
application to their phones--what are you asking for, spam and
fraudulent charges? So the iPhone and Android stores teaming with
third-party apps are a 180-degree turn for the mobile field. I
attribute the iPhone app store once again to competition: the href="http://www.oreillynet.com/onlamp/blog/2008/01/the_unflappable_free_software.html">uncovering
of the iPhone SDK by a free software community.



Downloadable TV segments

While the studios strike deals with Internet providers, send out
take-down notices by the ream, and calculate how to derive revenue
from television-on-demand, people are already getting the most popular
segments from Oprah Winfrey or Saturday Night Live whenever they want,
wherever they want.



Good-enough generic devices

People no longer look down on cheap, generic tools and devices. Both
in software and in hardware, people are realizing that in the long run
they can do more with simple, flexible, interchangeable parts than
with complex and closed offerings. There will probably always be a
market for exquisitely designed premium products--the success of Apple
proves that--but the leading edge goes to products that are just "good
enough," and the DIY movement especially ensures a growing market for
building blocks of that quality.


I won't even start to summarize Frankston's own href="http://frankston.com/public/">writings, which start with
premises so far from what the Internet is like today that you won't be
able to make complete sense of any one article on its own. I'd
recommend the mind-blowing href="http://frankston.com/public/?n=Sidewalks">Sidewalks: Paying by
the Stroll if you want to venture into his world.

But I'll mention one sign of Frankston's optimism: he reminded me that
in the early 1990s, technologists were agonizing over arcane
quality-of-service systems in the hope of permitting VoIP over
ordinary phone connections. Now we take VoIP for granted and are
heading toward ubiquitous video. Why? Two things happened in parallel:
the technologists figured out much more efficient encodings, and
normal demand led to faster transmission technologies even over
copper. We didn't need QoS and all the noxious control and overhead it
entails. More generally, it's impossible to determine where progress
will come from or how fast it can happen.

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