Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Deciphering net neutrality and the concept of an open-range internet 2

Posted in business and convergent technologies, in the News by Timothy Platt on October 20, 2014

This is my second posting to a series on the contentious topic of net neutrality. I outlined something of this emerging conflict in Part 1 of this series where I made note of how:

• A relatively small number of the largest online content, online sales, online social media and online connectivity service companies globally, seek to control both online content and business, and online connectivity speed,
• And with the prospect of their being able to close down other businesses that they do not favor from significant online markets – as is being tried by Amazon.com in their fees disputes with select book publishers,
• And with the prospect of offering tiered bandwidth availability with premium connectivity going to higher paying information providers and businesses, serving as the immediate trigger for this debate.
• And in contrast to these and similar corporate profit-based positions, I wrote about how many people and organizations view online connectivity and access to online information resources as fundamental to quality of life and as an essential service.

Much if not most of this debate, at least as of this writing is focused on bandwidth availability and the prospect of online connectivity services offering preferred bandwidth to some and lesser bandwidth to all else. But I would argue that connection speed favoritism in exchange for premium fees constitutes just one component to a larger picture which can perhaps best be compared historically to the closing of the commons in British history, or the enclosure as it is called, and the fencing in of the American West with its closing off of the open range. These events marked contentious societal transitions and with both positive and very negative impacts. Just considering the closing of the American West behind barbed wire:

• The closing of available paths for herding cattle long-distance overland marked a fundamental shift from cattle herding to agriculture
• And led to large farm and early agribusiness agriculture by making new economies of scale both possible and inevitable.

I stated at the end of Part 1 that I would turn here to discuss recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hearings on net neutrality as are taking place in the United States and that I would also discuss how this conflict is viewed, and how it is developing in a more global context as well. I am going to address those issues, and the international implications of net neutrality as major online businesses are seeking to reshape what that term means. And I will also discuss Facebook’s emerging plans for becoming an online gatekeeper for third world countries as they more fully enter into the global online conversation, as part of that narrative. But before I do so, and to put all of this into fuller perspective, I will suggest and at least briefly argue what might be seen as a contrarian position. And the core of that position is fairly simply stated:

• The history of attempts to manage and control the internet and online sharing of information can be seen as a history of failure, as ways to bypass access barriers and impediments arise just as quickly as (primarily governmental up to now) efforts are made to control and limit online access.

And I begin this discussion with the absolute fundamentals and with the basic structure of the internet as initially built into its earliest incarnation: the ARPANET. The internet as we know it evolved out of the ARPANET: one of the world’s first packet switching networks. And that network was explicitly designed and built to be able to automatically reroute network traffic around damaged or lost network nodes.

More explicitly, the original ARPANET was designed and built during the Cold War when threat of possible nuclear weapons attack on the United States by the Soviets was considered to be of serious concern. It was initially built as a command, control and communications (C3) network for ensuring positive control capabilities over widely physically distributed nuclear weapons arsenals, and to ensure effective communications with launch facilities by government leadership and even if network nodes that should be available for this connectivity were lost. ARPANET was built to ensure a retaliatory second strike capability and as a deterrence against any possible preemptive first strike nuclear attack against the United States.

The underlying backbone of ARPANET and its successors has always been a built-in capacity to automatically create workarounds that would bypass breaks or even just significant slow-downs in network connectivity. And when ARPANET technology was transitioned into general public use as a then still embryonic internet, this capacity to automatically reroute traffic to the fastest and most efficient connection routes made its hyper-exponential growth possible. Bypassing slowdowns and blocks is built into the basic fabric of this technology.

And with that in mind I turn to consider China with their Golden Shield Project, known in the West as the Great Firewall of China (see my series: The China Conundrum and its Implications for International Cyber-Security at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time as postings 69 and loosely following for its Parts 1-23.) This is a highly structured, government supported effort to regulate both information access and online connectivity over an entire country and its population. And as I have discussed in detail in earlier series, it is an effort that involves hundreds of thousands of people, monitoring, blocking and deleting specific online content (e.g. specific social media and other posted messages) and entire web sites and other sources. But the basic technology of the internet makes anonymous servers (proxy servers) and a host of other work-arounds both possible and readily accessible too for bypassing this shield and both when downloading and accessing online information, and when uploading and posting it.

A large and increasing percentage of China’s citizens are actively and essentially always online through both computers and smart phones and they do post and access content that would not be acceptable to Golden Shield censors. And the members of this increasingly online public know to follow this flow of online traffic and resend it on to others virally so it does have real impact – and even after it is caught out and deleted as individual messages and content packages as everyone in China knows that truths are being deleted.

I cite here this massive governmental effort to regulate and limit the flow of online connectivity and information sharing as an already attempted counterpart to what might happen as an extreme possibility if private sector corporations were to attempt to control access and information flow, and for whatever reason or according to whatever access and content policies. And this brings me to my contrarian question: how significant an impact could private sector corporations have in shaping and attempting to in effect own the internet and its communications flows if even an all-out government attempt at this cannot succeed?

• On the corporate side, businesses would argue that their overall impact on the internet would be minimal at most in changing the overall content that is available or accessibility to it online.
• Their opponents in this debate argue a case based on the dynamics of the Pareto principle and the fact that barriers and slow-downs to accessibility as would be created for example, by offering preferred bandwidth to preferred content and transaction providers, reduces visibility to all else. And they would argue that even if a system like the Golden Shield – or a private sector selective-access counterpart to that cannot completely control the internet, it does significantly shape and skew it and skew what is effectively visible.

And this brings me to the FCC hearings that I noted at the end of Part 1 of this series and again at the top of this posting. When the US Federal Communications Commission holds regulatory hearings on an issue, they routinely offer opportunity to the public to offer comments that would be reviewed as part of their fact finding process. As of July 15, 2014 the FCC had already received a record breaking number of comments from all sources in anticipation of their impending hearings on net neutrality with over 780,000 submitted by that date. Additional time was offered to submit further comments as a result of this response level and as of this writing (on August 14) over one million comments have now been submitted and from both private and public sector parties.

I am going to discuss these hearings and the FCC’s role in defining and regulating net neutrality in a next series installment and will also at least begin a discussion of how Facebook and other social media businesses seek to shape online connectivity globally and how and why net neutrality involves a lot more than just bandwidth access. Meanwhile, you can find this posting and related at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time and at its Page 2 continuation. And I also include this in my In the News postings list.

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