Lack of Net Neutrality will be a competitive liability in the future for the US

Net Neutrality could be dead in the US and I think that this creates problems for companies that do business in other parts of the world. Or rather, it creates incentives for companies based in the US to focus on non-US markets for conducting business. There are several reasons for this. Let’s take this from a Netflix perspective, assuming they were able to get the same catalog they currently have in the US and took it into Europe (this has been difficult for US companies while it’s been easier for EU companies to come into the US – see Pandora and Spotify as references). Let’s assume that can happen and they have they opportunity to continue to work in one region or the other.

The EU has recently enacted end-to-end Net Neutrality as the law of the land. So, Netflix traffic cannot be slowed down because of the volume. It cannot be slowed down because it is Netflix traffic, all traffic if it needs to be groomed happens at the same time (likely random or everything gets slowed down). Netflix cannot be charged by the ISP to ensure specific speed to guarantee quality of product, if Netflix wants to control this, it’s up to them (they could manage this through increased buffering before the video starts, for example). The average internet speed is significantly higher than in the US, so the quality will be higher and the need for buffering lower, because the speed can account for dropped packets much more effectively. This means if they charge 8 Euros a month, they are able to keep more of that.These conditions would also apply in Argentina.

In the US, Netflix traffic is now subject to the whims of the ISP. the ISP can slow down traffic based on the time of the day, based on the source of the traffic (using deep packet inspection). They can and have charged Netflix for equal access as, for example, Comcast Xfinity’s streaming service. The US has some of the lowest average internet speeds in the industrialized world. Netflix charges $8/month they have to pay Comcast to ensure that their service meets their end users requirements.

As a company that makes money based on the fact that they are able to deliver high quality content (where the price of said content is continually rising), I would prefer to operate in the EU rather than the US. I will have significantly less issues with the ISPs because they can’t discriminate my traffic and I won’t have to pay to make sure that they do not discriminate my traffic. This means that my quality will increase and my cost per user will not increase as it will in the US. I would begin focusing on providing local language content as well as the best content I can provide from the highest quality sources in the world.

As we start moving towards higher speed requirements in our applications, this will become a larger problem. I know of people online that have issue streaming up to Twitch and Mixify as well as streaming the content to their computer. This is a problem now. We will be moving into significantly higher quality video and games (PS4 streaming a game to your console, that will require a lot of bandwidth and low latency $$$$$). Furthermore, if we start having more tele-medicine we’ll need higher quality video feeds to ensure best results.

These are all examples of applications we know of that will suffer from a lack of net neutrality. As we get people that develop applications for gigabit connections, we’ll start to see net neutrality as paramount. These companies will not be able to afford the required costs for the internet speeds required for effective applications.

This means that the EU and other net neutral countries may become the source of innovation for these applications or companies that create them in the US will need to move to markets like the EU for a user base that can fully exploit their application.

We’ll effectively be playing on an Xbox 360, when high quality PCs are out there. We’ll be at a serious disadvantage.

FCC, Net Neutrality, and the Internet as a platform

The proposed FCC rules for Net Neutrality are pretty terrible. The Verge has a pretty good write up on them, here. Is this a good or bad thing? Personally, I think this is terrible for the future of innovation as I’ve written about before in a few spots, most recently here. I also think it depends on what you think about the role of the ISP. If you think that the role of the ISP is to provide a conduit to the internet and simply pass data to you, then Net Neutrality is for you. If you believe that the ISP should actively play a role in the content you seek, then Net Neutrality is not for you. If you think that the ISP has a role in shaping the way data flows, has the right to extract as much money out of the internet ecosystem, then you probably don’t think that Net Neutrality is the right thing either.

I believe that this comes from a fundamentally different world view on how the economy should function. There are a lot of people out there that truly believe that organizations have the right to maximize profitability. I don’t really think that’s true. I think that organizations have a role to play and those that exploit platforms like the internet are drains on the economy and limit our ability to innovate.

Many of the developers of the initial internet protocols strongly believe in net neutrality. Ranging from the guys that used to run Xerox PARC to Tim Breners-Lee, there’s a lot of different push back against non-neutral positions.

I think from an evolutionary economics standpoint, technology platforms of the past have been wildly successful because they’ve been able to continually lowered in prices which increases accessibility. This drives further adoption of that technology as a platform encouraging more companies to compete to make that technology platform. Some historic platforms are roads (shocking), steel, silicon chips/processors, and now the internet.

Roads have been pretty much government sponsored and open for just about anyone to use. In Portland, the Blue Line MAX line has driven $7 Billion in new development, the largest for a new commuter line anywhere. Computer chips are near and dear to my heart as I’ve worked at a few companies that make them. I think that we can all see in our daily lives how these chips have dramatically changed the world. That the company that makes chips (Intel) is worth a lot less than a company that leverages those chips (Microsoft). The combination of these two companies has essentially driven a great deal of the modernization we’ve experienced in the last 20 years in the US.

In the last 10 years the internet has driven the worlds most valuable companies. It has more quickly shifted how companies engage with their customers and powerful retail based stores have fallen on extremely hard times (Sears/KMart,etc…). My job is only made possible because of the internet I work with people in different states every day.

The fact that it will soon be government policy to enable a company to seek as much money from every user of their platform is only going to hurt the entire ecosystem. If my service stays the same but my price continually increases, that means I can’t afford to buy services that I want online, so I’ll switch to other options or drop the options all together. This will kill competition and negatively impact consumer choice. Furthermore, if I’m paying for Netflix and Comcast and Netflix is forced to pay for access to Comcast customers, then Comcast is charging everyone. I’d expect massive quality upgrades on a continual basis or something in return for all this extra cash flow. Instead it will likely go to investors in the form of higher profits.

The known unknowns and the unknown unknowns of AI

I’m reading a book called “Robot Uprisings” which is quite obviously about robots and how they could attack and take over the world. I think the most interesting thing about this collection of short stories isn’t the fact that there are uprisings, but the many different routes that AI could decide to revolt. There’s a broad range from robots debating if they should revolt or not, to an AI that we never figure out what to do with and only revolts when we try to kill it.

I think that these difference scenarios really encapsulate the limitations of our imagination with what could happen with robots. I think the most terrifying thing is what we really don’t understand about robots or AI in general. What is being built without our knowledge in government labs, in universities, and in hacker labs. We’re debating the ethics of the NSA and GCHQ espionage of their own citizens and the limits of rights in the digital space. We’re using rudimentary “AI” in terms of heuristics and algorithms. We as end users or that are impacted by these algorithms or if their very assumptions are even ethical, without bias, or anything along those lines. danah boyd argues that the Oculus Rift is sexist because the algorithms that control the 3D functionality are all designed by men for men. Agree with her or not, but women get sick using the Rift.

If we can’t agree on the ethics of programs that are in use and the risks posed by the solutionism of the internet, then we’re in serious trouble when we actually create a thinking machine. Stephen Hawking argues that we would not sit and wait for an alien species to come and visit earth if we have advanced warning, but that is exactly what we’re doing with AI. We know it’s coming, we know that there will be something similar to a “Singularity” in the future. Our internet optimists are waiting breathlessly for it, but we don’t truly know the long term impact of this technology on how it shapes our own society.

It’s not just the risk of AI destroying our world and all of humanity. It’s also the lack of understanding of how our current algorithms are shaping our conversations in the media and social media. For instance, it’s fairly commonly known now that a lot of pretty major news outlets are using Reddit as a source to identify upcoming stories. TMZ, the Chive, and tons of other content sites mine it for memes and stories, while more serious news sources find interesting comments and use those to drive more interesting stories.

I believe the tweet below really does a good job showing how lowly we think of ethics in our society. This will really negatively impact our ability to understand the risks of AI. AI is going to really transform our culture and we don’t know what we don’t understand about the risks of the technology.

We live in a complex world

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately. Not about my normal stuff, I think I’m feeling a bit down from not having much of a social life out here – had a friend in town likely sparked that a bit. Life’s complicated. We don’t live in a nice neat linear world where the good guy wins because the author wants it to be that way (or talks about how they should have written the series differently after making billions).

The world we live in is complex. Seemingly random decisions can impact the rest of your life. A flip of a coin over which grad program to go to, a roll of the die to pick between 4 jobs after college, living with all new people my freshman year at Pitt, even the decision to go to Pitt over anywhere else were all fairly haphazard and without much of a plan. I went with a lot of gut feelings with those choices. They’ve all lead me on pretty crazy and interesting adventures. If I hadn’t lived on the 9th floor in Tower A I would never have ended up living with 5 girls my Junior Year and none of the adventures all of my friends had there would have happened.

We don’t like complexity. We like to think that the path that we’re on was the one we were always destined to be on. It’s very nice and easy to look at the complex history of technology, science, and society to think that our current culture was pre-ordained in some manner. So many different choices could have dramatically altered where we are now. Just one of those decisions I mentioned above would likely have altered my life and everyone I’ve met since dramatically. This thought really struck me while I was watching an Episode of Cosmos. Essentially the entire German lens industry hinged on a SINGLE arbitrary moment of kindness from a Prince and soon to be King.

We punish people that remind us of complexity. Think of all the times people talk about “Flip-Flopping” in politics. You get punished for changing your mind because you’ve learned more. When I’m at my most arrogant I like to think that I’ve been really consistent with my thinking since as far as I can remember, but I know that’s not true. I’ve learned a lot and met a ton of new people, there’s no way I could NOT have been influenced and changed what I believed about a topic.

All these thoughts have been rattling around my head because they are essentially making me ask, yet again, what do I want out of life. I have a good job, I’m buying a house, I have a great wife, but what do I want?

I’m working on learning programming so I can start a company, it’s slow going, but it’s going at least. I want to write a book, but that’s even slower going – I’m finding with my current schedule I don’t have time to do both, let alone have a life outside of spending time with my wife’s friends. That being said, I think I need to do some soul searching on where I want my career as well as my social life.

Any thoughts?

Musings from an annoying commute

On the Max ride home today, I heard to late 40-50ish guys having a chat about the down fall of the current generation of kids. I was trying to read my book, but the conversation ranged from the casually uninformed, family first thoughts, to the down right ignorant. According to these gentlemen our society is in the shitter because of the decline of the nuclear family, kids think video games are real, and therefore the kids in Columbine thought that they could take 8 bullets and come back to life. I had to restrain myself from commenting on this bucket of ignorance.

First of all, the nuclear family is essentially a myth. we’ve had modified family structures for as long as there have been families. A ton of people I know have had parents that have divorced, one spouse cheating on the other, or some sort of death in the family. Almost all of these people have turned out reasonably well. Everyone has their problems, but I don’t think that it’s solely due to family structure problems. If anything, the family structure problems that these guys are talking about are related to problems more closely associated with inequality and the fact that these families have someone in prison, work 2 or 3 jobs to support their family. These folks have to work so much because they can’t afford rent and our economy is structured around the car, which most of these people are being priced out of.

Second of all, violence and confusion over video games and reality don’t really exist. According to a recent study, if people are aggressive during or after a game it’s NOT because of the violence or lack thereof, but because of a lack of skill or fairness in the game. Apparently, people are more aggressive if Tetris is more difficult than if it’s easier. I think that Candy Crush Saga is a perfect example of this. The most difficult levels are frustrating because it has nothing to do with your skill, solely if you get the right combination of candies to effect a board clearing combination. Even if you do everything perfectly, you can still lose – which keeps pulling you back in. Dark Souls is another case in point. The game is so frustratingly difficult that many people rage quit, but they keep coming back because of the sense of accomplishment upon completing these difficult monsters/bosses. Essentially, the reward of accomplishment and skill accrual is worth the frustration.

Finally, because of this clear separation between reality and game the boys in Columbine didn’t think they could take a ton of bullets. This is obvious due to the fact that they committed suicide with one bullet. The problem with those boys is the fact that we don’t really speak to each other well about our problems. Marilyn Manson had the best response to that back shortly after the horrific events happened.

The conversation between these two men really just struck me as two guys looking for someone to listen to them and parrot it back. Honestly thought, it really just reminded me of two stoners talking about things.

The EU goes Net Neutral

If the EU had voted against strong Net Neutrality laws there would have been a serious problem between a few national governments and the supra-government of the EU. A few years ago the Netherlands became the second country in the world to fully support Net Neutral principles. Furthermore, the EU level Telecom and internet lady is Dutch, Neelie Kroes. She’s been very vocal supporting Net Neutral and “Internet Freedom” since I started following her a few years ago.

I’m not really surprised by this law passing. The EU has been under less influence of many companies than the US government. Additionally, net neutrality inherently has more privacy built into the system. It limits the requirements of deep packet inspection – because there’s no shaping based on the content of the packets, just the amount of packets. Ideally, this will mean that there is less capability in the network for deep packet inspection.

This could lead to some difficulties in the differences between US ISPs and EU ISPs. I’m interested in the ramifications of throttling across the different continents. Clearly someone getting content from a company in the EU won’t want it to be throttled in the way that Netflix has been. It could create some legal ambiguity and issues. I’m going to be watching how all of that resolves.

Campaign finance laws and its limits

Today, marked the second time the Supreme Court ruled against setting maximum campaign contributions. First, it was a limit on corporations, now it’s the limit an individual can contribute in a given year. The first ruling is called Citizens United and I was initially very against this ruling because I felt that it would give undo influence to corporations. However, based on the argument Lawrence Lessig provides in “Republic Lost” – that at what point does an arbitrary limit on spending make sense? For example, if I decide to spend a lot of money on ads for a specific candidate through multiple different channels. The problem isn’t that I, as an extremely wealthy person or organization, can spend as much as I want, it’s that there’s an inequality between what You, as a poor pleb, are able to spend. This creates an inequity in the free-ness of speech.

We know that the amount of money a person can raise heavily influences their success rate in the election. This isn’t a surprise as the candidate is able to run more ads and reach a broader audience than the candidate with less money. There’s nothing new to this. Furthermore, the current structure of our media makes it amenable to rich people that spend a lot of money. The limit of $123,000/year/candidate didn’t really impact how much money a wealthy individual actually spent on the elections. Based on this biased news source, the Koch brothers spent over $2 million in more than one state. So, the campaign limits didn’t really work as designed regardless of the limits set. The Supreme Court Ruling basically just aligned the law with reality and didn’t change a whole lot.

Campaign Finance reform is just a band aid over a much greater systemic problem. This is something that Lessig was trying to address in his book, other writers have tried to address through different books, and tech leaders through cruise ships off the coast of San Francisco.

However, I think that this Atlantic image really shows the problem:

The Atlantic: Top .01% income growth

We live in a highly unequal society and the finance rules for campaigns was an attempt to set arbitrary limits to control the influence of the wealthiest Americans. It wasn’t working. The Supreme Court admitted it. Now we need to figure out how to actually fix this extremely difficult problem – that some portions of the population refuse to see as a problem.

I don’t have a solution to this problem. Lessig proposes we use laws to encourage accepting public funds and the creation of that fund through taxes. This would eliminate the influence on donations – which directly or indirectly impact the vote from a person in Congress. Creating something that more effectively through the right incentives and behavior modification is a good start to address the inequality we have in our country.

I think that the growing inequality is hurting our country. When we were much more equal in terms of economic status, we were innovating, for real innovation, not applications. We were developing things to send people to the moon. The greater the separation the top percentages has from the bulk of the population the more risk adverse they’ve become. They aren’t helping push us towards bigger and better things. We need the equality to help drive innovation. That’s the root cause of the problem. Campaign Finance reform was attempting to address a symptom and not even well. Let’s figure out how to address the root cause.