Can We Kill This Ridiculous Shill-Spread Myth That CDNs Violate Net Neutrality? They Don't

from the stop-it dept

Okay, so we debunked this silly argument back in 2006 (and again in 2008), but it appears to be back again now that the net neutrality battle is heating up: it’s the idea that because we have CDNs, the internet has never been neutral (for those who don’t know, a CDN is a Content Delivery Network — a system, like Akamai, that allows internet companies to distribute their content geographically, so that download speeds are slightly shorter across the network, since physical distance is not as far). But that’s based on a bogus definition of “net neutrality” that only telco shills or very confused people make. The simplest way of explaining this is as follows: CDNs make the surfing experience better for everyone, by better distributing content to speed delivery to everyone. The efforts by big broadband to break net neutrality is to set up a tollbooth so that they get to pick winners and losers. In short: CDNs benefit end users. Breaking net neutrality only benefits the big broadband gatekeepers. This is about the power of big broadband to pick winners and losers.

And yet… it’s the myth that just won’t die. The worst example comes from Ev Ehrlich. As you may recall, we wrote about Ehrlich’s reality-challenged claims a few months ago (right after a PR person who pushed those thoughts to us refused to confirm or deny whether Ehrlich was being paid by big telcos or broadband providers). Ehrlich’s arguments weren’t even close to accurate back then, and in the intervening months, they seem to have become even more reality-challenged:

It’s great to say that everything on the Net should be equal. But there’s nothing neutral about the Net now, despite what a few strident voices say. When Google caches its content around the world so that its stuff gets to you faster than its competitors, is that neutral? When Netflix buys – or perhaps one day builds – its own, faster private network to take its movies from its servers to your ISP so it can get a competitive advantage, is that neutral?

Again, no one has ever said that internet providers can’t improve the overall experience for all of their end users. The issue is not about that, no matter how badly Ehrlich and other broadband shills would like it to be. It’s about whether or not the broadband gatekeepers can pick winners and losers by setting up tollbooths and fast and slow lanes. When Google and Netflix improve their networks, the benefit goes to everyone. When Comcast sets up tollbooths, the only thing that goes to everyone is… increased costs.

The only thing neutral about neutrality is the price these big websites pay – under Netflix’s “strong neutrality” proposal, it would pay nothing to get access to you. And that means that you pay more than you should.

Bullshit. Seriously. This is flat out bullshit. Netflix pays through the nose for its bandwidth. As we’ve asked in the past, any time a big broadband shill makes the bogus argument that Netflix “pays nothing,” let’s see if Ev Ehrlich will trade his broadband bill with Netflix’s. After all, they pay “nothing” right? Of course, the weasel wording here is paying nothing “to get access to you.” But that’s also bullshit. Netflix pays to get on the internet. People pay to get on the internet to get access to Netflix. If Netflix then has to pay again to get access to you, then it’s double paying for the bandwidth you already paid for. That’s a big part of what big broadband is trying to do: to get everyone to pay twice for the same internet access.

And the idea that you pay more because Netflix doesn’t have to pay tolls to Comcast, Verizon and AT&T is ludicrous. Hell, Netflix recently did agree to pay interconnection fees to all three of those companies. So, according to Ehrlich, now that it’s paying, Comcast, Verizon and AT&T should all be lowering their bills, right? Right? When that doesn’t happen and the bills actually go up, will Ehrlich admit that his argument is ridiculous? Somehow I doubt it. Furthermore, it doesn’t take a genius to recognize that if every internet site has to pay once for bandwidth and then a second time to “get access” to end users, that the cost of basically every internet service out there is going to go way up — meaning that end users will be paying a lot more.

But that sort of “logic” eludes Ehrlich.

Why? Think of it this way. The cable, fiber, DSL, wireless and satellite companies that bring you the Internet serve two markets at the same time. They try to attract customers to be their users, and they try to attract websites to be their content. The more users they get, the more content they attract, and the more content they attract, the more users they get.

This is also totally incorrect. It’s as if Ehrlich has never actually been on the internet. The big broadband companies have never tried to “attract websites to be their content.” No internet site in the history of internet sites was created because a big broadband provider said, “Hey, be content for us!” No, internet sites are created because those sites want end users, and those end users are on the internet requesting their content. Hell, based on this ridiculous argument, shouldn’t Comcast, AT&T and Verizon be paying me for being “their content”?

The problem is, however, only one side of that two-sided market pays – you, people like you and me and Selby.

Again, not true. Both sides pay for their bandwidth. What Ehrlich wants is for internet companies to pay again for the bandwidth you already paid for.

Content pays the neutral rate for the neutral service, which means they can keep their advantages (like caching and private-backbone networks) and create congestion, while letting you pay for the Internet, lock, stock and barrel.

Again, those “advantages” improve the internet for everyone. The congestion — as many broadband providers have more or less admitted — is entirely their own fault. They have more than enough capacity, but are letting ports clog to create fake bottlenecks to try to force these companies to pay.

Think about a newspaper – it works the same way. The Chronicle attracts readers so it can attract advertisers. It also attracts advertisers so it can attract readers. What if The Chronicle weren’t allowed to accept money from advertisers because “newspaper neutrality” made it impossible to let some stores advertise and others not? The price of the paper would go up, because the reader would have to carry the entire cost of the paper.

Bad analogy is bad. It doesn’t work the same way, at all. The real analogy here is that imagine if you paid for your newspaper subscription and the newspaper pays the delivery fees and their taxes, but then the guy who paved the road to your house demanded that the newspapers also pay an extra fee to use those roads that he paved (even though he was fully paid for the paving). It’s a tollbooth. And that’s what the big broadband providers are doing.

And let’s remember that the premium signal that the neutrality advocates want would make it harder to get distance learning, remote medicine, live entertainment, gaming and other innovations that need an unbuffered connection. If you have one speed limit, you can’t have ambulances.

None of this is true. It’s outright dishonesty. There is more than enough capacity to provide those services if the big broadband providers don’t deliberately let ports clog, as they’re currently doing.

Ehrlich’s entire piece is incredibly dishonest. And, furthermore, the San Francisco Chronicle does not disclose the fact that he’s paid by a lobbying firm hired by the big broadband providers to spew this sort of misleading crap. I guess if you’re going to be totally dishonest about the arguments for net neutrality, why not also be dishonest about who’s paying the bill, huh?

Meanwhile, a similarly misguided piece appeared in the Wall Street Journal, by the paper’s former publisher, L. Gordon Crovitz. At least with Crovitz, I don’t think that he’s directly being paid by broadband companies. I just think he’s shown a pretty long history of being somewhat clueless about how the internet works and is incredibly gullible to claims made by biased parties about how things work. In the past, Crovitz flunked internet history by arguing that it was created by private companies without government support (not at all true). Crovitz also recently argued that all Snowden had really proven was that the NSA is really, really careful about its surveillance. Once again, here, he’s quite confused on the facts:

But as Internet use grew, sites like Google created their own fast lanes by sending data directly to ISPs such as phone and cable companies via what are called “peering” arrangements. Sites like Netflix created another set of fast lanes using “content delivery networks” to place their computer servers inside local ISPs so that video and other bandwidth-hoggers can be delivered smoothly.

In other words, fast lanes won’t kill the Internet. They’ve saved the Internet.

Again, this is buying into the myth that CDNs violate net neutrality. They don’t. Full stop. CDNs make things better for all internet users equally. Violating net neutrality doesn’t.

If it weren’t for these fast lanes, the Web would have screeched to a halt when photos and video began to supplement text-based traffic. At peak times, Netflix alone now accounts for one-third of all Internet traffic. If it weren’t using its own network to cache video locally around the world, other traffic on the Web would get hung up or delayed. Fast lanes keep everything else flowing smoothly, from email to security cameras to remote surgery.

Again, (yes, I’m on repeat here), CDNs are about improving access for everyone. As others have pointed out, a CDN doesn’t degrade other traffic. It improves the overall experience by moving content closer to the edges of the network. The efforts by Comcast, Verizon and AT&T are entirely different. They’re looking to reallocate traffic to burden some players in favor of those who pay. That’s picking winners and losers. The impact is wholly different. A CDN benefits everyone. The gatekeeper broadband providers are looking to hinder some sites in order to favor those who pay.

Crovitz then goes further, buying into the broadband spin and bullshit about what reclassification would mean:

Activist groups in Washington with benign names like Free Press and Public Knowledge want the Internet reclassified as a public utility, subject to the sort of regulations that micromanaged railroad monopolies in the late 19th century and the phone monopoly in the 20th.

That would spell the end of permissionless innovation on the Internet. Bureaucrats would have authority to dictate how networks operate, which technologies can be used, and what prices can be charged. Regulators would approve or disapprove innovation in business terms as well as in technology.

No, it wouldn’t. There’s a reason we keep talking about forbearance rules in association with reclassification, and it’s because with forbearance, the FCC could restrict all of that bureaucratic mess. And, even if it didn’t, it wouldn’t make a direct difference for “permissionless innovation on the internet” because that’s actually protected by not allowing the big broadband providers to pick winners and losers as it desires.

There are legitimate concerns to be raised about how to best protect the internet and innovation online. But bogus arguments claiming that CDNs prove that there is no net neutrality don’t help. They just make whoever wrote them look clueless about how the internet works. Those claims were debunked nearly a decade ago. To keep bringing them up today requires being willfully or deliberately ignorant of the facts.

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Comments on “Can We Kill This Ridiculous Shill-Spread Myth That CDNs Violate Net Neutrality? They Don't”

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John Fenderson (profile) says:

The scariest line

and they try to attract websites to be their content.

What do these ISPs think they are?? The websites he’s talking about aren’t their content. ISPs give you a link to the internet. They are not content providers. Yes, the megacorps do also provide their own content, but that’s a distinct thing from their ISP business.

A good ISP lets you access the entire internet. ISPs do not need to (and can’t) “attract” websites.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The scariest line

Actually, with ISPs now becoming content providers this is actually one of my fears. In fact they are promoting websites and services, such that Comcast advertises for Internet on their cable channels, and the Comcast website advertises for Cable services. Look at Verizon’s move to distribute movies on RedBox to compete with NetFlix. I’m not saying they can’t compete, but I worry that the whole toll thing is basically a sly why so that they might not have to.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: The scariest line

Some of the ISPs want to kill services like Netflix by burdening it with extra charges, and making its delivery unreliable. That or they want to package web services with cable TV packages to keep up their cable subscriptions.The reason it directly competes with their cable services, and is one of the reasons people cut the cord. This is a fundamental conflict of interest inherent in combining cable and Internet delivery in the same companies.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: The scariest line

Yes indeed. And this is one of the biggest reasons why I favor title 2 reclassification. It would force the major ISPs to separate their content side from their internet service side.

But even with the current reality, his comment makes no sense. He wasn’t talking about internet service as a way of reaching his own company’s content. He was talking about the entire rest of the internet as if it were “their” content.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Probably worth defining "CDN"

It means “Content Delivery Network”. Essentially, it locates servers that contain copies of content that is large and that people just read (such as movies) inside the ISP’s server rooms themselves. This content is then served to the user from those places rather than a central server farm, minimizing the distance the traffic must travel to get to the end point.

This doesn’t relate to net neutrality because the CDN traffic is not being given any special consideration by the ISP that isn’t given to anyone else.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Probably worth defining "CDN"

If the target audience is expected to include senate staffers – or people in general – uneducated on the issue, then they can not be expected to understand it.

Or to put it another way, if the reader is someone that needs Ev Ehrlich’s claims debunked, then odds are pretty good they need a quick primer on what a CDN is.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: This *is* a tech blog, after all

First of all, as far as I’m concerned, anyone that uses a link to “let me google that for you” is a asshole and automatically wrong. People fucking know how to fucking use google. If they’re asking a question here, it means that for whatever reason they aren’t fucking interested in asking fucking google. So giving them a lmgtfy link is just a fancy way of being a piece of shit and telling them to go fuck themselves.

Moving on, this is a tech blog, yes. That does not mean all it’s readers are well trained and educated on the technology it covers. Part of it’s mission is educating people about the technological issues that intersect with political issues. They made a big deal about that during the crowd funding drive a couple weeks ago, particularly with a nice article on how the site had helped educate ignorant senate staffers in the past.

As such, when trying to educate people about the issue of CDNs, it is a poor attempt to educate when people have to either stop and google the acronym, or read halfway through the article until the full term “Content Delivery Network” gets used in a quote from someone the article is saying is wrong; for them to learn what a CDN is.

Greevar (profile) says:

Re: Re: This *is* a tech blog, after all

You’re right. It’s far too much of an imposition to do a quick search on a term in a blog article while you’re already using a web browser. Why be self-reliant in finding information when you can just demand that every little detail be spoon-fed to you?

Honestly, you have the tools at your disposal and refuse to use them, while complaining that someone didn’t do the work for you? That’s pretty lazy. Those that inform themselves are better equipped than those that expect others to do the informing for them.

That’s the problem with education these days. They fill people full of rote knowledge, but don’t teach them how to gather their own knowledge. It’s the difference between being an independent thinker and a dependent thinker. It’s not the author’s fault for not doing what you should already be doing for yourself.

I can’t even count how many times I’ve come across something in an article that I wasn’t familiar with and immediately did a search to elucidate it.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: This *is* a tech blog, after all

It’s far too much of an imposition to do a quick search on a term in a blog article while you’re already using a web browser. Why be self-reliant in finding information when you can just demand that every little detail be spoon-fed to you?

It’s not about whether the readers can find the information, it’s about good writing. He could also never explain who anybody is that he’s writing about and expect the readers to google the names, but that would be bad writing. Similarly it’s good writing to explain acronyms that might not be understood. I think Mike just misjudged how many of the audience might not be familiar with the term.

JP Jones (profile) says:

Re: Re: This *is* a tech blog, after all

AC, I notice you didn’t ask what “net neutrality,” “broadband,” “bandwidth,” “FCC,” and numerous other terms used in the article mean. I’m sure someone reading the article might not know what those are, so where’s the righteous thunder?

This blog has talked about CDNs numerous times, and they’re fairly common knowledge, at least as much as net neutrality and FCC. It’s reasonable to assume the people reading the article know what they are, or if they don’t, have the ability to quickly look them up.

The article wasn’t about CDNs, it was about why CDNs are not a violationt of net neutrality. If you don’t know what either of those things are the article probably won’t make much sense to you, just like a debate on ESPN about the Patriot’s offense won’t make much sense if you have never watched or played a game of football. How many times have you heard one of the sportscasters say “The quarterback, who is the person who leads the offensive team and is responsible for calling plays, threw the ball for a first down, which is when the offense moves more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, which is blah blah blah…”

They don’t do this because it’s assumed that the people watching have a basic understanding of football. Likewise, a tech blog assumes people have a basic understanding of technology. You apparently don’t, and then get upset when it’s not spelled out for you.

Techdirt has no obligation to pander to your ignorance. The article was about something more complex than the individual terms used and your lack of knowledge on that term means that you need to find out what it is if you want to understand the article.

Sorry if that’s too much for you, but it’s not the author’s fault and not the fault of people who called you out for being lazy.

Anonymous Coward says:


And let’s remember that the premium signal that the neutrality advocates want would make it harder to get distance learning, remote medicine, live entertainment, gaming and other innovations that need an unbuffered connection. If you have one speed limit, you can’t have ambulances.

On roads, we currently do have a speed limit, yet we DO let the ambulances go as fast as possible, making all other traffic stop for them. But we don’t let a pop star’s tour bus pay for special license plates to allow them to do the same.

If it turns out that remote medicine IS something that is really really critical, there is no reason why the FCC couldn’t make an exception – for that, and that only. Comparing ambulances to gaming and live entertainment just shows how wrong his analogy is.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Ambulances?

Actually, in the ISP world most people pay for services like this. It’s called MPLS and managed services. So for example, I have an office and want to guarantee a set amount of bandwidth for phone calls and another set amount for a connection to my remote office. I can call up ISP x and order a MPLS network between the two offices and request that priority traffic be given to VoIP, and x amount for office to office traffic. Span this out to large organizations and you end up with a nice way to alleviate issues with Voice calls, Video conferencing, and other services that depend on consistent latency and low packet loss, as well as throttle site to site backups, so employees can have a better internet experience.

Josh in CharlotteNC (profile) says:

Re: Re: Ambulances?

+1. Having worked with companies and done support on this (latency sensitive financial and stock market stuff), that’s a good succinct explanation. Many services don’t even need particularly large amounts of bandwidth – they’re more latency oriented than bandwidth heavy.

Just remember that these are business-to-business services. No matter how much I scream, I’m not going to be able to get this kinda thing from Time Warner going between my house and Netflix (even if I’m shelling out for their “business class” connection to my house).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Ambulances?

That sounds like it’s throttling your OWN network, though, so you don’t inadvertently clog your own bandwidth. The traffic analogy would be like having a dedicated driveway for semis to unload instead of having them clog up the main entrance. It has no effect outside your own driveway.

Josh in CharlotteNC (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Ambulances?

You’re not strictly speak wrong, but the general understanding of what throttling is would confuse this issue. Segregating part of your network for the type of traffic you decide is quite different than what most ISPs would describe as throttling (which would generally involve traffic during peak hours or from heavy users).

mcinsand (profile) says:

the fundamental problem with tiered charging

If ISP’s (Internet Service Providers*) existed in a competitive environment, this wouldn’t be an issue… unless several vendors were colluding to set fee tiers. However, since the US ISP is almost purely comprised of local monopolies, this is particularly a problem.

>>When Netflix buys – or perhaps one day builds – its own,
>>faster private network

If only! I keep hoping that Google Fiber moves into NC soon!

Anonymous Coward says:

Same logic applied elsewhere:

“Why? Think of it this way. The car manufacturing and car dealership companies that sell you vehicles serve two markets at the same time. They try to attract customers to buy their cars, and they try to attract places to be interesting to visit for drivers. The more drivers they get, the more interesting places they attract, and the more interesting places they attract, the more drivers they get.”

Does it work? No, the bullshit shines through. I don’t need my cars manufacturer telling me where I should go and at what speed I should go to get there. I pay for the car and I drive where I want up to the physical and legal limits possible. I pay for the internet service and I visit the websites I want up to the bandwidth limit that I pay for. If Ford, Toyota, or Honda started trying to tell you which roads you should take and asking you to pay more to get there or else they’ll make the car drive slower, you’d tell them to go fuck themselves.

This kind of argument is only possible for them because of the lack of competition in the marketplace. If they had to actually compete for customers instead of sitting on the monopolies they hold and making yachtloads of money from them, they wouldn’t dream of suggesting this bullshit.

Anonymous Coward says:

Satisfied Customer

When Google caches its content around the world so that its stuff gets to you faster than its competitors, is that neutral?

So the fact that I could purchase a fast T3 line instead of a slow dial-up connection means the internet is not neutral? So you’re already violating net neutrality and must give me a T3 line? So you’ll be by to install it sometime between the hours of 8AM & 10PM? See you then!

Zonker says:

CDNs (Content Delivery Networks) are to the internet like franchises are to fast food restaurants. McDonalds has franchises distributed around the world to serve many more customers faster than if they operated out of one their headquarters alone.

How long would it take to receive an order of a burger and fries from Oak Brook, Illinois when you live in London, England? How long would it take to order the same from a franchise two blocks away? What’s stopping Burger King or even an independent restaurant owner from opening a franchise in your neighborhood too?

This is simply better localized service of products under high demand over a large area, not a violation of the free market/net neutrality. This is nothing like the only place you can buy burgers is from McDonalds when you’re in Illinois and you can only buy burgers from Byron when in London.

Whatever (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The problem is while we understand CDN to be one thing, others may be thinking it’s something else. There are CDNs like akamai or cloudflare, and then there are private content delivery networks, owned and operated by the destination sites.

Private networks that peer directly with ISPs (say like Netflix paying Comcast) are just a fancy version of a CDN. Yes, these guys are paying for a faster and more direct connection than anyone else can obtain.

In that way, it’s the proverbial fast lane.

Whatever (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Actually, they are exactly the same thing, the only difference is the method by which they reach the ISP. Usually even a CDN such as Akamai is reached through a backbone provider, and not via direct peering (although I understand they do have some direct peering).

“speedy delivery networks” (trying not to use CDN) such as Google’s direct to ISP and even “in the ISP central office” systems give them the distinct advantages of (a) having an exclusive connection, and (b) not having to compete with others to connect to the ISP via their edge routers and peered connections. It’s a private CDN, really – with great connectivity.

To say that this sort of arrangement doesn’t give them an advantage is to entirely not understand networking and congestion at all.

CDNs (such as Akamai, cloudflare, and others) are different from private delivery networks, however both deliver content faster and some people do lump them together as CDNs… and really, they are just a fancy, private version of the public CDNs… with better connectivity!

Zonker says:

Re: Re: Re:

Netflix paying Comcast for a fast lane is nothing like a CDN. Instead, it is like paying an exclusive toll to drive down an empty five lane highway to avoid a jammed up two lane road, only opening the five lane highway (already paid for with your tax money) to all would make everyone’s commute faster.

Completely different from distributing service efficiently over a large area. A franchise close to your house reduces the distance you have to travel while opening your existing five lane highway to everyone rather than a privileged few would improve travel time for all over any distance (and be net neutral).

And when Comcast refuses to upgrade their connections to their peers with a couple of wires and maybe an additional router (which Level 3 has even offered to buy and install for them) it is exactly like refusing to open up that five lane highway unless someone pays a toll.

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