A month or so ago, a PR person sent me a ridiculously misleading (to potentially dishonest) Forbes piece by Ev Ehrlich, former undersecretary of commerce for President Bill Clinton, arguing against net neutrality
. The piece was so ridiculous that I asked the PR person whether or not Ehrlich, in his current job as a consultant/think tank person, was working with any broadband providers. The PR person said he didn't know, and I figured I'd just ignore the piece. However, having now listened to a radio debate on KCRW about net neutrality that included Ehrlich making the same basic argument
in a discussion with Tim Lee from the Washington Post, Harold Feld from Public Knowledge and Alexis Ohanian of Reddit, it seems worth highlighting just how confused and, well, wrong, Ehrlich is. Here's the crux of Ehrlich's argument:
But what does “open” mean? To some advocates, it means that all the data packets that carry everything over the Internet must all ride at the same speed and cost, a policy dubbed “net neutrality.” But it’s time to question whether that policy really works for all of us.
But this isn't true. And using it as the premise of his argument destroys any credibility Ehrlich might have. No one has argued that net neutrality means that there can't be differentiated speeds and costs. We all see this every day. We can all buy internet access at different price points and speeds already. So can the companies who provide services on the internet. No one considers that to be a violation of net neutrality (except, it appears, folks like Ehrlich who want to pretend net neutrality is about something it's not).
concern is not about that. It's about the broadband providers then turning around and doing a massive double dip. That is, even if you've, say, purchased an access plan with certain speeds and the internet companies have purchased their access and bandwidth at their own speeds, the broadband companies want to also be able to go to those internet services and charge them again
to reach you at the level both of you have already paid for. Basically, they're arguing that when you buy internet access, you're merely buying the right to reach from your end of the network to the middle. And that's it. They're saying you haven't bought the right to reach service providers' end points. So, what they want to do is get the internet service providers to pay a second time to "reach you" rather than just the middle. And, if they don't, they may degrade or even block access.
Ehrlich misrepresents nearly all of this, as he argues for a tiered internet:
And that means that the Internet has evolved in a way that makes it practical for different types of uses to travel at different speeds, the way you can buy Sears’ “best” or Sears’ “good,” or travel in express lanes for a fee. In the modern world, “neutrality” means that a heart monitor that connects a patient to an online medical service crosses the Internet no faster than a video of a cat playing the xylophone.
Again, almost nothing written here is accurate. You can already get higher bandwidth and higher speeds and pay more for them. No one has argued against that. You can also do things to increase speeds like using CDNs to cache content and put connections closer to the endpoints. No one is arguing against that, though if you read Ehrlich, you'd think it was so. Furthermore, no one is arguing that a medical service can't connect to a faster line (though, it makes a lot of sense to use a dedicated line for such things anyway). They're just saying that the end ISP shouldn't be degrading certain service providers to make them pay more. The basic concept is one of preventing discrimination -- such that Comcast can't favor (for example) NBC content over ABC content (or YouTube content). But, NBC, ABC and YouTube all need to buy their own high levels of bandwidth already from their own
service provider. What they shouldn't have to do is then pay again to your
service provider just to reach you at a reasonable rate. They've already paid their own service provider, and you've already paid yours.
I'm at a loss as to whether or not Ehrlich just doesn't understand this or if he's being purposefully misleading. From the article and his statements in the interview, it almost sounds as if he's been misled and is arguing from a position of ignorance. It honestly sounds like he's been given the broadband providers' talking points and is just repeating them, without realizing he's arguing about something entirely different.
If a newspaper wasn’t allowed to take money from its advertisers, the reader would have to pay more. It’s the same with the Internet; if a provider can’t charge the big websites for a premium connection (if they want one) then the consumer has to pay instead, meaning consumers subsidize the companies sending big data packets.
Again, this statement is so inaccurate as to be laughable. No one
is arguing that internet services don't have to pay for their broadband connections and speed. The claim that newspapers are not being "allowed to take money from its advertisers" mistakenly and misleadingly suggests that internet service providers are getting something for free. They're not. The more accurate analogy here is like saying, imagine if your state refused to let Fedex drive on its roads without paying extra, and instead sells "exclusive" access to UPS. That's not about someone getting something for free: it's about the infrastructure provider blocking competition. That's the issue being debated, and it's really unclear if Ehrlich even understands this.
The one other laughable argument that Ehrlich lays out in the radio interview, but not the Forbes piece, is the ridiculous claim that most people in the US have four or more choices of broadband providers. He's again "technically" correct that the FCC has data making this claim, but the reality is quite different. First, the FCC's data is notoriously bogus. Pop your own address in at broadbandmap.gov
and laugh, laugh, laugh at the results. There are generally two major problems with the data in that database, both of which completely undercut the argument made by Ehrlich and others that there's real competition for broadband, and that if you don't like what one company is doing, you can just switch to another.
Problem number one is that the speeds claimed are absolutely bogus
. I live in the heart of Silicon Valley, and it claims that I can get 10 to 25 Mbps from AT&T. I know that's not true, because I had AT&T DSL here for many years, and despite me begging them repeatedly for higher speeds, they never offered me but about 3 Mbps (and that was only relatively recently). The FCC's data is notorious for massively overstating actual speeds. I recently switched off of AT&T to Sonic.net (which is freaking awesome). The FCC's database claims I can get 25 to 50 Mbps from Sonic. I wish! The best package the company actually offers me is a top download speed of 6 Mbps. And, of course, all of these speeds are "up to" anyway, meaning you rarely see them in real life.
Problem number two is much bigger. What Ehrlich is actually quoting includes wireless
services, where he pretends those are competitive. They are not. Basically any actual mobile provider that offers internet access includes incredibly low data caps on broadband access, in the range of 3 to 5 Gb / month. Those networks are simply not designed to be your primary internet access, and pretending otherwise is pure folly. Plus, the speeds on those networks tend to be much
lower than advertised. The reality is that almost no one actually has four choices. Most people have two: their cable company and their telco (I'm actually one of the few lucky ones who can also get Sonic.net). And, to make matters even worse, the telcos are actively
trying to get out of the landline business
, even to the point of pushing their customers over to the cable providers as they try to focus just on wireless. That means there may be even less competition before too long.
Now, I've made it clear repeatedly that I'm skeptical that the FCC or Congress can come up with a reasonable solution to protect basic net neutrality -- so I worry about those efforts as well. But I'm constantly amazed at the absolutely bogus arguments that are regularly trotted out by people who claim to be against net neutrality. There's a reasonable argument that legislation or FCC efforts could be a mistake that would make things worse -- but the arguments usually presented by telcos and their supporters don't even pass the basic laugh test, and that's absolutely true with Ehrlich's talking points in both the article and the radio interview. I still don't know if he's working with any broadband providers, but either way, he needs to get past their bogus talking points and argue what's actually being discussed.