Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Internet Freedom Preservation Act (S215) -- an important advance in net neutrality?

Early in 2007, at the outset of the 110th Congress, Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and ten cosponsors introduced the “Internet Freedom Preservation Act” as S. 215. The bill is shorter and simpler than its predecessors (discussed in earlier postings on this blog) that have died at the end of the session. Internet debates on network neutrality sometimes refer to bills that have already expired, but similar bills get introduced in similar sessions with new numbers. Typically, as with partisanship in Congress, provisions get the cosmological “big rip” and then get re-bundled in new legislation, so debate must hit a moving target.

I have some details and links on my new Wordpress blog on “technology and law confluence,” here.

The bill does, upon detailed reading, appear to require telecommunications companies to make good faith efforts to make their services available to everyone reasonably, but does allow some stratification in pricing, based on bandwidth use. Perhaps this is “have your cake and eat it too.” Physicists do that all the time.

What really seems needed is more public understanding of how all of the ISPs, cable and phone companies, search engine companies and social networking companies make their profits. There has already been a lot of debate – continuous on these blogs -- on the exposure that the new technology creates for minors, as well as all of the security implications for businesses and individuals, and the nation as a whole. But, whatever the legal status of network neutrality to date, some observations some clear. Companies already have some stratification in the way they offer services. ISPs, for example, often offer both shared and dedicated web hosting, with dedicated more expensive. Does dedicated offer faster access? Probably. Is it “fair” to the public? Yes, partly because for small businesses and individuals, shared hosting works relatively well even in an unregulated environment. Shared hosting does offer economies of scale in some critical areas, like network security and backup and even disaster recovery. No one could reasonably say that this practice should not continue, as long as offered in good faith.

Companies have, over time, been offer to offer much larger amounts of disk space and bandwidth even to individuals with no real revenue from “operations.” There are potential exposures, to be sure. Despite the advances, it’s not feasible for me to post a two-hour high definition movie on my site for unlimited viewing. Some “image style” PDF documents, not searchable and taking much more space and sometimes preferred by lawyers for posting during ongoing litigation, can still present space issues. (My master’s thesis is in that format and takes 6 meg, and would only take about 500K as a converted word document.) In rare cases, a website that had antagonized some community might attract a DOS attack or repeated page loads of some big file, running up bandwidth charges until caught by the ISPs periodic account resource usage monitoring.

Other questions about telecommunications policy can arise when people do their own hosting and run their own web servers in rack space but work with telecommuncations providers, and this includes people who want to do hosting for others (I had my own work hosted by someone doing that until 2001, after 9/11). This may not be as common today as it was ten years ago because larger ISPs do have such economies of scale.

I wonder about the expansion of bandwidth, disk space, and search engine capacity as blogs and profiles proliferate, apparently exponentially, many of them even on free space. So far, the mathematics of supply (to some extend based on a programming “interview question” concept as simple as the binary search) has kept up with user-generated-content demand, and may well be driving it. Advertising, miraculously, seems to pay for it just as it has with network television (and that amazed people in the 1950s).

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