when unqualified opinions collide

posted by tom / June 12, 2006 /

Unsigned editorials are terrible. I realize that I should be getting into the habit of dutifully reading the ones on offer from the Post and Times so that, during the dinnerparties of the future, I can cluck my tongue insightfully over the latest institutional outrage (in between lighter conversational fare, e.g. "Preschools Are So Expensive Now" and "We Think The Maid Is Stealing From Us").

But I just can't do it. They're like particularly badly-written blog posts, except without a name to offer accountability or references to back up their bizarre arguments-by-fiat. If newspaper editors had any brains they'd ditch the unsigned editorials (and political endorsements) immediately, before people start laughing in their faces in social settings. But I suppose they're too focused on fomenting the next war (how'd that last one work out for you guys, by the way?).

Today's an exception, though, because the Post's anti-net neutrality editorial is so staggeringly dumb that it deserves to be reprinted everywhere — to ring throughout the online universe as an emphatic testament to the fact that Writing, Editing, and Not Being A Total Fucking Idiot are three distinct disciplines.

The best parts:

Meanwhile, there are powerful arguments on the other side. If you want innovation on the Internet, you need better pipes: ones that are faster, less susceptible to hackers and spammers, or smarter in ways that nobody has yet thought of. The lack of incentives for pipe innovation is more pressing than the lack of incentives to create new Web services.

Content providers pay for their bandwidth. Say it with me, slowly: content providers pay for their bandwidth. Sound it out delicately, like you're holding a robin's egg on your tongue. Focus on the sound of each phoneme. Write it a million times in Dnealian your editorial notebook: "Mrs. Content Providers Pay For Their Bandwidth" (you may draw a heart around it, if you think it would help). Ask Judy Miller whether she can tat you up with it if you can find her a Bic pen, a needle and some wine you brewed in the toilet.

The fact that the content providers pay for bandwidth means that a market exists. A market that will drive innovation and the development of infrastructure as necessary, if the economists are to be believed.

And, while we're at it, let's discuss the "spammers and hackers" question — which I will generously interpret to mean "quality of service" (although a more meaningful reading is "this person knows nothing about how the internet works"). Net Neutrality doesn't stop anybody from applying traffic shaping, packet scheduling or any other QoS techniques to ensure that the internet works properly. You can look at the content of the packet and change how it's treated as necessary. What you can't do is change how you treat it based on the depth of the pockets of the corporate entity that sent it. "Parent company's market cap" isn't available as an iptables filter, anyway.

You can see this imbalance in Wall Street's low valuation of Internet infrastructure firms such as Verizon (price-to-earnings ratio: 12) and its infatuation with Internet service firms such as Google (price-to-earnings ratio: 69). You can see it, too, in the fact that U.S. broadband infrastructure lags behind that of East Asia and Europe. Allowing builders of Internet infrastructure to recoup their investment by charging the Googles and Amazons for use of their network would balance the incentives for innovation more closely.

That's funny. I always thought that the phone companies were suffering because fiber networks were massively overbuilt during the late 90s, and because the digital revolution is drastically reducing the margins available in the phone business. And I thought that Asia and Europe had better internet services because of higher population density and large government subsidies, not superior market conditions. And I thought that utility stocks, with their emphasis on reliably high dividends rather than potential for gains in share price, weren't generally supposed to have higher P/E ratios than high-tech companies that went public less than two years ago. Shows what I know.

Ironically, a non-neutral net would accelerate the spread of zippy broadband that can deliver movies, allowing hobbyists with camcorders to take on Hollywood studios. The neutrality advocates who criticize corporatized cable TV should welcome that.

Flat declarations are not the same as arguments. The whole point of the anti-NN position is that it will allow telecoms to cripple service to content providers who don't pay a premium. How the hell is that going to help budgetless hobbyists? You'll be providing them with a competitive disadvantage versus the entrenched players. It's clear that the Posties mean that the Awesome New Network We Didn't Know We Needed is what will help hobbyists — but those alleged advantages (over and above our hypothetical Net Neutral future) will only come to organizations who can pony up the dough to access them. Suddenly an increasingly unequal playing field is supposed to help the little guy gain marketshare?

The weakest aspect of the neutrality case is that the dangers it alleges are speculative. It seems unlikely that broadband providers will degrade Web services that people want and far more likely that they will use non-neutrality to charge for upgrading services that depend on fast and reliable delivery, such as streaming high-definition video or relaying data from heart monitors. If this proves wrong, the government should step in. But it should not burden the Internet with preemptive regulation.

Speculative? Sure, because net neutrality has been the law FCC regulation of the land (and look how slow this internet revolution has been as a result, right?). But we're already seeing examples of the abuses that would become typical. Why not search for NN and "Craigslist" or "Vonage", and see what comes up? Or, if you'd prefer an analogy, how about acquainting yourself with the search engine optimization community, and see how a small business can be devastated by a subtle downgrade in their service — search engine availability, in this case — imposed by a third party.

What would happen if Google started charging companies to stay at the top of search rankings? Would the Post say that this will allow Google to earn revenue that will help it improve its service, ultimately benefitting everyone? Maybe they would. But only because they're morons.


Woo D'Nealian!

Posted by: Becks on June 12, 2006 01:37 PM

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