Is Net Neutrality regulation commie nonsense?

Network Economy

Regulation’s a bad thing, right? Personally, I think there are instances where regulation is an amazingly good thing that drives innovation. We also need to be cautious about who is saying regulation is good or bad. Back in the 90’s we’d hear that regulating in anyway to prevent acid rain would cripple business and kill our economy. This clearly didn’t happen, we have acid free rain for the most part, we have more productive manufacturing than ever. We also hear that regulating CEO pay by median rather than average is significantly more complicated to the point that a place stacked full of MBA’s can’t figure it out. Then there are regulations that pick winners like Solyndra and turns out to be a disaster. These cause higher taxes and are actual drains on the economy (personally I’m on the fence about experimenting with new technologies and having the government support them, but that’s me).

What about the FCC “regulating” net neutrality? I think that it’s important to look at how this all started. First, I’ll start with a bit of a history with the telecoms, then move to how the internet was developed, and move to comparisons between other monopolies.

AT&T has been described as a natural monopoly. This was partially helped by the US government because the government wanted coast to coast telephony and selected AT&T as the standard for that activity. This gave AT&T incredible market strength, but was also extremely fragile as it was continually under threat of being broken up for being a monopoly (which is was). To do everything they could to avoid this, the geniuses at Bell Labs continually designed ways to keep their costs down, improve quality, and make very thing better. They also had some government deals that helped them a lot (military contracts for telecom stuff, like the first satellite). The value of AT&T’s network grew every time a person joined the network.

The fact that one person joined Network A over Network B could further impact the growth of that network. Let’s say Person A is friends with 5 people and is already on Network A, it’s likely, if they are really good friends and A is known for making good decisions, that those five people will join A on Network A. The value increases by more than simply 5, because all five of those people can talk to each other as well as every other person they know on Network A. Now if Person A has more friends, but not as good of friends and they actually are better friends with Person A’s friends they will also likely join Network A. This sort of cascade effect will continue to happen. This is also known as Metcalfe’s law.

When AT&T was force to break up, all of that interoperability remained. Instead of one big monopoly there were regional ones instead. As we’ve seen over time, these same regional operators have slowly re-joined back into 2 Bells versus the non-Bells. AT&T being split is a type of regulation for sure, but it did spur some interesting competition for a time.

How the Internet was designed:

The internet was originally designed to operate in many different application layers. Essentially the bottom of the stack was Internet Protocol which was agnostic to the type of information being sent across it. At the time, the most efficient method was over Ethernet so there was not any requirement to be concerned over the application medium. Over time there would be some concern, but that was really addressed by the protocol.

What would happen is that the applications that required information to be sent on either end would translate the information to be used by the layer below it to send out, such as a web browser to the OS, to the network driver to IP, across the internet to the network driver to the OS to the web server application. Across this entire process the actual data being sent was unknown to any of the nodes in between the application layers. (If you’re interested in this check out Internet Architecture and Innovation).

Of course the companies providing the bandwidth for that did not want to find itself in a similar role as they had after the break up of AT&T where they were forced to become “dumb pipes” for whatever people wanted to send across their network. To prevent this they created capabilities like deep package inspection and other tools to identify what content was being shipped across their lines. This also was the beginning of violating “True” net neutrality.

Why were they dumb pipes? Because they were defined as a common carrier to increase competition across the land line providers and ISPs the telephone companies had no choice. This lead to the explosion of ISPs like AOL, Century Link, and so on. What has happened since? The broadband lines have been ruled that they are not “Common Carriers“. Meaning that the data across the line can be treated however the companies that own the lines want.

Why is this bad in a network economy?

In a network economy, being able to fully control anything and everything can be very bad for the consumer if there is no other option. Now, you could argue that there are options, but in most cases because of other monopoly rules there are few options for allowing a new ISP.

A perfect example where a network monopoly isn’t a big deal is in Smart Phones. The iOS App Store is a natural monopoly in a network. The more people using the iPhone the more valuable it became and more app developers developed apps. It never became a problem that Apple regulates the entire experience BECAUSE there were other networks you could shift to, such as Blackberry, webOS, Windows (whatever mobile version you want to include), and, of course, Android. All of these ecosystems offer very different options for devs. Additionally, within Android there are competing App stores which further benefits the consumer. If there were no other competitors to iOS and it’s App Store the constraints that Apple puts on their product would likely be viewed as very anti-competitive and a type of “foreclosure.”

Market foreclosure is using one monopoly to enable another monopoly. Now, regardless of if you think that this should have happened or not, it did. Microsoft was hit for using it’s Window’s OS to foreclose on the internet browser market and was looking to do the same with their music player. What resulted was that MS was required to offer other browsers when a new Windows OS was launched and helped to reduce the market share of IE.

How does this apply here? Comcast is already trying to do the same with Netflix in the streaming video business. Comcast owns the content (Universal, NBC, etc), the connection (Comcast Cable ISP), the rules (data caps), and if they want to charge to access their network or not. Eliminating the rules of net neutrality tilt the table in the direction of Comcast to a degree that Netflix may never recover. If Netflix, at one point 2/3 of all internet traffic, had to pay for every bit they streamed to allow for an enjoyable streaming experience they would be bankrupt in very short order.

I get that Comcast’s of the world don’t want to be dumb pipes, they own the content and that’s king. However, not every ISP owns content (Verizon/AT&T) so they aren’t at such an advantage to companies like Netflix. However that’s where AT&T’s data plan comes in. Which would essentially level the table compared to Comcast. We, as end users, wouldn’t see any benefit out of this. It’s not that our subscription fees would lower or we’ll magically get faster internet. This is simply rent seeking behavior and bad for the economy overall. Only true new competition can lead to that. Changing these rules have zero impact on that competition.

What it does do though is negatively impact the creation of new businesses that want to stream video or provide a novel product that requires high bandwidth and equal rights to streaming. Removing the protections on net neutrality dramatically increases the cost of streaming that otherwise could go into building that startup’s infrastructure. Think of the problems at Twitch.TV with their growth. My subscription fees pay for the growth of the network that I subscribe to regardless if it’s something like Twitch or Comcast. Anything else will go to shareholders and CEOs.

Could we develop other options like a Mesh network? It’s possible, but for that to work the option would have to be a public/private venture. Most citizens aren’t going to help create that and likely don’t have the technology savvy to do so. To further complicate this issue many ISPs are actually pushing to make it illegal for cities to create their own ISP.

In many cases regulation is bad for business. However, in cases like net neutrality it’s returning the net to it’s roots and enabling much stronger competition based on the merits of the company providing the service, not the arbitrary whim of network owner.

Sponsored data and YOU!

This could be your lucky day, your cellular provider is going to start offering packages where certain content doesn’t cost you anything in your data cap. This is awesome. You can start streaming more and more video/music/whatever it is that you stream from your favorite services. However, not all of your favorite services will be free of data charge! So make sure that you tell your favorite service that YOU want THEM to sign up and make their content data cap free to you! All those service providers have to do is pay your cellular provider money to stop the data caps! No, seriously, AT&T wants to do this.

Is this a problem? I think it depends on who you are. For a consumer in some cases this is pretty awesome. Let’s say you love to watch video games being streamed on Twitch.tv by your buddies over at KBMOD and Twitch decides to pay money to prevent your data from being charged against your data cap. But you’re also a huge fan of MLG and MLG just decided to start their own Twitch competitor but they can’t afford to pay those same fees. Well, guess you’ll be only watching MLG from your PC or on wifi. Too bad your favorite shows are on while you’re not able to use Wifi though! O well, Twitch is there for you though!

This is a niche market obviously. Not everyone cares about watching someone play streaming video games or even streaming video games to your phone so you can keep playing a game you were playing from home. A lot of people care about TV and movies though. We can look at this as something that’s really analogous to what Comcast was trying to do to Netflix close to two years ago. In April of 2012 Comcast announced that its Xfinity streaming service would not be charged against your Comcast data caps while Netflix streaming service would be. Netflix’s CEO argued that this violated Net Neutrality because it provided preferential treatment to one source of data over another.

What is Net Neutrality? Well, there are two different arguments, which I discuss in a blog here, where one is saying everything must be treated equally, while the other one argues that there are nuances and we can treat data differently because we need to “Groom” our networks. Internet and network purists believe that you shouldn’t even be able to determine what the data is or what the source of that data is if you’re a point along the network, just where it most recently was and where it needs to go next. The only application that can read the data in the package is the application that requested it.

AT&T’s plan, similar to Comcast’s, is in violation of Net Neutrality and the FCC will step in to regulate this type of “service” because it’s, in the end, bad for the consumer. Unfortunately, there are limitations to what the FCC can do and even potentially what AT&T can do.

There has been much more of a push for encryption and it’s likely that these pushes may actually enable more of a return to the true meaning of Net Neutrality. If all of our data is fully encrypted, deep packet inspection tools (which tell if the data you’re getting is video, music, or whatever), won’t work very well as that information will be encrypted. Furthermore, if your application’s data is all encrypted and AT&T won’t be able to tell if your data is your data then there’s no value in paying for “privileged” data status from AT&T.

It’s one of the reasons why I’ll likely support company’s like Wickr, an encrypted Snapchat competitor, which told the FBI to screw itself when they were asked to put a backdoor into their encryption. It’s important that we work to protect our data and support companies that do so in terms of Net Neutrality and encryption.

What companies do you support that encrypt and fight for net neutrality?

Data caps can we get rid of them?

Changes are afoot in the mobile industry. We’ve been seeing a sea change with how T-mobile looks at their customers. They’ve been changing the contracts and potentially even eliminating them. They’ve separated the phone payment plan from the monthly access fees which is an imortant first step in completely separating the purchase of a phone from the carrier that provides the services. This will eventually reduce the amount of junk files installed because  the carriers can’t force the providers to install them. I think that the reason why the Nexus 7 isn’t on Verizon Wireless is that they are refusing to install the bloatware that the Verizon is trying to force upon Google. I think this is a good thing. Google has also filed a suit against VZW to force them to allow the Nexus 7 on their network. This is going to break the carriers power over the user. Carriers don’t want to be dump pipes for the internet. The wired and cable companies are actively fighting against this by puttng data caps on downloading content. At the same time they’ve experimented with this, the wireless providers have been much harsher. However, these caps weren’t a problem in the past. According to BGR a website that focuses on mobile issues has noted that the amount of data that wireless users has begun to regularly break the data caps. T-mobile has also offered all of their plans without datacaps. This will likely push many data users on verizon and AT&T to switch over to these networks. This will likely put more pressure on the carriers than they have experienced in over a decade. I look forward to this increase in competition especially since I refuse to go over my data caps and greatly limit the amount of data that I use over the wireless networks. I believe we’ll see some interesting changes in the future.

I think that these changes will also preclude the merger of T-mobile and sprint as the US market needs additional competition not less. I think that there will be changes in all of the companies marketing and product offerings, but likely T-mobile will be the largest winner with Sprint in second.

NSA Bulk Metadata ruled likely unconstitutional

Today was a pretty big day for privacy fans. The NSA’s bulk collection of metadata has been ruled likely unconstitutional. Why is this a big deal? It’s “Just” metadata. Well, as the CBS 60 Minutes report showed the NSA is able to convert that information into a network. Networks show everyone that you talked with and despite assurances otherwise that phone numbers weren’t used, it’s fairly easy to unmask a person in a network based on the network characteristics. I wrote a blog post about this a while back that talked about a paper showing the power of metadata. I think it’s important to reiterate here what that is.

In the article, titled Using Metadata to find Paul Revere, the author explains by using who talks who it is possible to construct a large network and that it was likely to determine the major players of the US revolutionary war. Just using club membership, it wasn’t even what they talked about, just what groups they were members of and how they were all associated. Based on the metadata Paul Revere is a pretty central figure and knows a lot of the other leaders of the revolution.

The NSA would take this view and say, “See it could have caught those terrorists back before the revolution!” However, the judge in this case says that the government did not do a sufficient job showing that this actually worked. It is, in fact, likely that the British had some of this membership information but wasn’t able to put it to good use. In this case, the judge ruled that the collection of Bulk metadata is a violation of the 4th amendment.

What can we expect next? Well, the ACLU has a very similar case that is being heard. If the judge rules differently the Supreme Court may need to weigh in to deal with the problem once and for all. Which depending on how these cases are dealt with could be a good or bad thing.

It is unclear at this point how this will change the conversation in DC, it will likely just lead to more denials from the NSA and White House. They will argue it’s still legal and that they will appeal to the highest court that they can. If they lose this case, it will likely lead to a lot of other questions being asked and possibly calls for impeachment and resignations. I would not be surprised if some of the more extreme on the right call for Obama’s arrest as well.

The other piece that is of interest to me is the question about the companies that have been complicit with sharing of our metadata. Are they going to be in the clear or not? In the case of AT&T there was a law that protected them retroactively. I am interested to know if that will also be ruled unconstitutional as it enabled the government to break the law farther than it could have before.

In general this is something really good, but I believe it opens many more questions than it answers about the long term repercussions of this program. I will continue to blog about this topic!

New Economy vs. Old Economy – Creative Destruction

My last post on this the New Vs. Old triggered a far to brief conversation at work about creative destruction and when it’s “right” for creative destruction to occur. I felt that this was an interesting tact for approaching this sort of conversation. My colleague pointed out that when new businesses challenge laws that are in place just because you have to question if that’s “right” or not.

First, what is creative destruction? I wrote about this over two years ago, so I’ll forgive you not remembering. Essentially, it’s whenever new businesses figure out new innovative ways to provide a service or technology that causes the previous service to be obsolete. Today, it’s more popularly described as “disrupting a market.”

So, looking at creative destruction and the laws that spring up around a given industry I believe that on the extreme there are only two types of laws. Those that protect the consumer/public/end user/employee and those that protect the industry. That’s not to say that this isn’t a gradient where the impact of a given law flows from protecting the public to the industry or in fact does both.

For example, Copyright used to protect both the people that produce music and the public. It did this by guaranteeing a state sanctioned monopoly for a short time period and upon expiration the public would then own the work. This enable the creation of the music industry and helped artists grow and make money. It wasn’t perfect for either party, but it worked fairly well. We all know of stories of starving artists that died and then their works became popular. Well, currently those works still make someone money and that isn’t good for the public. Now copyright lasts as long as 70 years past the death of the original artist. This clearly is no longer protecting the public but is protecting the industry. I would argue that with how far the pendulum has shifted it’d be moral to try to push the boundaries of these laws and creatively destroy the industry. This is currently happening with the copyleft movement.

In the last blog I wrote about AirBnB and discussed Uber in the one before that. These are very different than the music industry. Most cab companies have something called a medallion, which is something like a certification of quality for the vehicle and the cab driver. These are very expensive and have essentially a dual function of protecting both the public and the taxi industry. Uber is challenging these laws because it is a “ride sharing” program where you hail a person going in the direction you are, pay them some money and move on. The purpose of the company is to reduce expense of moving around a big city like San Francisco, increase the competition of the market, reduce the number of cars on the road, and to make money a different way. Depending on your point of view it’s breaking the law. It’s being sued and will likely continue to be sued.

Is it “right” for this company to operate this way? Well, there’s the argument that you don’t have to use Uber at all, so if you’re concerned about the safety aspect you’re mostly covered. Since it’s a personal vehicle the general public is at no more risk than if the car was driving around with one person rather than two. The person is already on the road and likely would have been anyway, so if they suck at driving you’re no more or less safe. However, it’s still possibly in conflict with the law. It’s a new way to hail a “cab” and the taxi companies are having problems adapting to the competition. So is it right or wrong? In this case, I don’t really know. I think that it’s “Right” that a company is forcing taxi companies to evaluate how they do business and to challenge the laws that are in place to protect the taxi industry. I think there could be risks to the public, but they aren’t huge.

There’s another aspect that I haven’t talked about in this model though. A company like Yellow cab has subsidiaries in many different cities. While Uber is an application and it’s “cabs” are in any city where a person is a member. There’s a huge network effect benefit for Uber, they need to do little to no extra work and they can grow into new markets. Uber doesn’t control which markets they enter to some extent or how quickly they grow in a given market, they can grow as fast as the market can support the growth. Yellow Cab has a much different growth potential and can’t enter new markets as easily. If Uber is able to service an under serviced area shouldn’t we support that? Isn’t that “right.” Furthermore, with this rapid growth model it’s nearly impossible to know what laws they are going to be in conflict with until it’s already in the market. Ignorance of course is no defense, but it removes some of the intentional aspects of the creative destruction.

I think that there are certainly moral questions that need to be asked around new businesses and business models. We should continue to ask them and work to make sure that if a new company is disrupting and industry the result is equal or greater protection to the public and a balance between changing laws that protect incumbent industry and the new entrant.

Trust and Networks

At work today, my team and I went through training on something called the “Speed of Trust” which essentially argues that the more trust an organization has the less costs there are associated with doing business. Not only are things cheaper, but they happen faster. I was actually pleasantly surprised, I’m typically pretty skeptical of things like this as a rule because I feel that they compress extremely complicated ideas down to a single scale to be measured on. However, with the facilitator’s contribution of how the different types of powers interact with trust it became a lot more meaningful, even if there were so many platitudes provided by the author of the book during the videos that were shown.

I think that there’s one area that was definitely missing from this topic that was only moderately touched on – Networks. There are plenty of network theories that discuss the obvious cost savings and accumulation of social capital in better ways than was covered in this discussion.

Social Capital is a way of measuring how much influence you have in a network. Unfortunately, the only networks that were recognized in this method are the formal networks that are created simply by being an organization. There was no discussion of how people can create informal networks that can have more influence on the organization than the actual formal network structures. For instance, if I want to change the direction of some project and I’m struggling within the project itself, I may try to use my formal structure of going up through my manager over to one of the managers of the people on the team. However, this is typically considered poor form, another option would be to discuss the topic with someone else that is influential and spend some social capital and have the problem resolved informally. These networks can influence the structure of organizations because people that are managers may not be the thought leaders in the organizations. When striving for change in an organization it is crucial to expend social capital on the most influential people – titlewise or otherwise.

Furthermore, these networks can enable anyone to generate more powerful ideas. As you discuss issues or ideas with many different people in the organization and include their suggestions or comments around the idea/issue it’s possible to create significantly better ideas. Then whenever you’ve come to the point where you’d like to enact your idea, you’ve already built a coalition of support through your conversations and will have more successful ideas.

The Speed of Trust course was pretty useful to help determine how to address trust issues in an organization. It’s important to identify where and how things are going wrong. However, I think it’s important to keep in mind network theory to maximize the benefit of trust.