Sunday, June 25, 2006

Net Neutrality: Push v. Pull

Unlike the newspaper business, the television business, cable TV, satellite, which all involve pushing content out to consumers and ultimately allowing them to choose what to read in the newspaper, what channel to watch on their cable TV, the Internet is all about consumer choice, them being able to pull whatever information out unimpeded or un-discriminated against by their phone company or cable company network operator.

That model is about to change, unless Congress acts to reinstate the nondiscrimination rules that were removed last summer.
-Paul Misener,

As Misener says, traditional media (radio and TV in its broadcast, cable, and satellite manifestations, and I'd say effectively newspapers too nowadays, though that's more debatable) operate on a 'push' model: there are a limited number of choices that are constantly being pushed through a broadcast or cable pipeline at us. We can choose among those choices, but the one thing we can't choose is 'I want other choices.' Except we might have some slender hope that the marketplace will eventually evolve to give us choices more to our liking, but that generally takes years and costs thousands of lives, as the guy in Animal House said.

The Internet is just the opposite - from the first days of FTPing files via Gopher and the like, it had a 'pull' model: a file was out there on a server somewhere, but it didn't move through the pipeline until an end user sent a message asking for that file. Anyone could put files on a server, so the end user's choices of what files to ask for were theoretically infinite.

The era of Web browsers hasn't changed that fundamental architecture one whit. Amazon's Web pages sit on a ginormous server, and Joe Blow's Bookstore's web pages sit on another server, and neither flows over the pipeline until someone requests them. When they do flow over the pipeline, the users at both ends pay bandwidth costs: Amazon and Joe Blow pay more, depending on how much they use and how big a pipeline they pay for; at the consumer's end, the telcos and cable companies find it easier to charge us strictly by how big a piece of pipeline ( = speed of download) we want to buy: smaller fees for dial-up, larger fees for various speeds of broadband. But in between, all packets are treated equally.

What the broadband providers want to do is at least partially to a 'push' model - to have advanced content that would be streamed to you whether you wanted it or not. Some of it would surely be nice - interactive games, new movies, and whatnot - but by 'pushing' their premium content (or content that other users paid to have 'pushed'), it would slow down other content, the 'pull' content. Also, they'd change the rules for the 'pull' content as well - packets from certain providers (generally those who paid for the privilege) would be sped up, and others would be slowed down. Google, Amazon, eBay and the like would have to pay (on top of what they're already paying) to keep their pages showing up quickly when you download them, and they don't want to have to pay a second time for the privilege, but they can afford to. However, Joe Blow's Bookstore would likely find the fees too steep, and would be relegated to the slow lane. And if the slow lane is slow enough, people won't wait for Joe's web page to load, so they won't buy his books.

The Web has become a wonderfully competitive free-for-all because we have had a neutral Net all this time. I believe, and I think it's supported by the evidence, that a free market needs a certain minimum set of rules to keep competition as wide-open as the nature of the industry in question will allow for. Keeping the pipeline itself neutral is in my opinion the essential piece of architecture in the case of the Web.

Needless to say, my main concern is about news and political sites being treated equally, not just with each other, but with commercial sites. The traditional media has played a 'gatekeeper' role for too long, deciding what's news and what isn't, what news to front-page and what to bury on page A16. Similarly with the keepers of our discourse: screw David Broder, George Will, Richard Cohen, Tom Friedman, David Brooks, and all their ilk. Who decided they were the people whose opinions counted, let alone Ann freakin' Coulter? Non-expert but intelligent opinion is an incredibly abundant resource, and a neutral Web enables me to read a considerable array of commentary. (And one function that commentary plays is pulling out those stories that are buried on page A-16, or even stories appearing in the Sydney Morning Herald, but not in the US papers at all.) I worry that the next DailyKos or FireDogLake will find itself in a v-e-e-e-r-r-y s-l-l-o-o-o-o-o-w-w lane if a few big corporations get to decide what to push, how much pipeline is left for user pull, and which sites get sped up and slowed down over that bit of remaining pipeline.

One more rumination, then I'll quit. Saturday's WaPo has a front-page article about online music, and how all sorts of impromptu networks have given us listeners a much greater abundance of ways to become exposed to new music, or even old music for that matter, rather than our having to choose from the limited quantity of music that's marketed over the airwaves, be they the handful of broadcast FM stations, or Sirius or XM's hundred channels. The fundamental goodness of being able to choose amongst however many offerings people want to put out there, rather than a much smaller number of offerings coming over a limited handful of distribution channels, is beyond debate. I'd hate to see all these new networks getting slowed down; a world where Neutral Milk Hotel can gain a following well beyond their backyard without having to sign a contract with a major record label is my sort of world.

That's just a few reasons why Net Neutrality is important. If any one of them applies to you, contact your Senators and let them know how you feel.


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