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Diffserv: Can it coexist with neutrality?

Diffserv is a traffic classification scheme. Can it coexist with network neutrality? Not unless the data services industry commits to public audits.

One of the managers at AT&T recently blogged about (AT&T Public Policy Blog: The Danger of Dogma) an IETF working group’s RFCs regarding Diffserv, a traffic classification scheme, as evidence that neutrality is not a fundamental principle of the internet.  I’m pondering, in brief, whether Diffserv and neutrality can coexist, and if so, how.

Diffserv

Briefly, Diffserv adds a small tag to each datagram in order to classify its type of service.  The default is the standard best-effort, and other options are for various priorities in order to help guarantee that specific traffic will reach its destination in a useful manner.  The scheme depends on intermediaries respecting the tag on each datagram, and being able to actually carry out the request according to its meaning.  The old scheme, best-effort, simply means that each intermediary treats each datagram the same, and tries to faithfully route it on toward its destination.

A Mixed Bag

So, if you have a bag of marbles, and they are all the same size, then reaching in, you will be equally likely to grab any of them.  It could be said they have neutral weight with respect to one another.  The Diffserv bag contains many marbles that are equal, but some are bigger, and some are sticky.  You are more likely to pull some of those marbles out.  That much is obvious, and there will be an inherent bias there.  Is that necessarily a problem?

I am willing to admit it is not necessarily a problem.  If you have upgraded your marble scoop to be faster (ie, you can guarantee the same treatment as always to the standard marbles), then there’s really nothing wrong with the bigger marbles being mixed in.

The Rub.

We are talking about the data services industry.  They are not known for their dependability, and even if they swore on a stack of IETF STD docs that their new marble scoop would not only guarantee the old level of treatment to standard marbles, but would actually do better, I would not believe them out of hand.  That much is clear.

So, we have a question to ask them.  What, exactly, will be the technical measure that will guarantee the continued progress of the network, and how will you be deterred from simply keeping the infrastructure static while wink-nudging customers into adding stickum to their datagrams?  That’s what it will take to make such a change acceptable to those of us that aren’t in your pockets: undeniable proof, based on well established standards of evidence that are employed in this little thing called science.

What Proof Could Look Like

Proof that they would not discriminate against best-effort packets would have to come in the form of infrastructure guarantees.  That is, they would have to make public commitments to their infrastructure development.  Furthermore, random, public audits showing consistent improvement in the delivery of best-effort datagrams would be required by law to show a lack of bias.

The penalties for cheating or non-participation in the audits would have to be very stiff and actually enforced.  As the government doesn’t enforce the law for extraction of resources from ecologically sensitive environments, Diffserv doesn’t look very promising.

Google Policy Blog: Myth v. Myth

The bottom line is this: no institution shall rule the internet. If the internet remains useful at all, it remains open. If they want to destroy it, they can, but they cannot rule it. Ruling it would destroy it, and it would take all of their gold with it.

Google’s public policy blog has posted a response to criticisms of their joint proposal with Verizon on Network Neutrality: Facts about our network neutrality policy proposal.  It takes a heavy view of criticisms, constructing Myth strawmen (or at least glossing over the fine distinctions made by critics).

Here are their “facts:”

  1. Something is better than nothing.  (The second fact is a repeat of this.)
  2. Wireless is different than wired connectivity.
  3. Distinguished services are sufficiently defined to preclude network bias scenarios.
  4. (This and the next are kind of silly to include, but for completeness:) A proposal for legislative action is not a business deal between Verizon and Google.
  5. A proposal for legislative action is not binding on Congress, they are still free to make it worse.

I’m going to skip those last two, for the reasons I parenthesized.  As to the rest:

Something does not mean something good

It’s straightforward to recognize that inadequate protections that merely provide coverage for providers to do as they wish will be a horrible failure.  And that’s what’s being proposed by Verizon and Google.  It’s legless and mealymouthed, and it could actually be more harmful than that if it turns out as other flawed systems such as the US immigration policy.

Their proposal, if implemented, simply would not have teeth.  Codified, it would act as an ipecac, allowing a brief sojourn from network bias only to vomit the bias back out, soiling the internet.  They note that the non-discrimination provision might just evaporate, and without that, any such legislation would be a fraud.

Why I say IPN

Wireless or wired, Internet Protocol is Internet Protocol.  Google will continue to fail to admit to that, and as such they want to pretend that the open-access rules they were able to get bundled with wireless spectrum auctions count for something.  Those rules have yet to bear any results for consumers who, despite the “more than just two providers to choose from,” the wireless industry remains an oligopoly where consumers lack real choice or differentiation of service.

You can expect the de facto price fixing and market inefficiencies to stand firm so long as a chunk of plastic (ie, the hardware, which is more of a status symbol than anything) remains their main selling point.  Until wireless becomes a dumb service where they must compete on price and performance in a brightly lit market, we will continue to suffer from another rotted industry.

And if wireless carriers can mix network bias on top of their offensive wares, that will only cement the industry to remain corrupt for the long haul (at least until wireless mesh is feasible).

Secure banking by (insert ticker symbol)

Among the differentiated services Google envisions is “a more secure banking service.”  Yes.  Let’s have your service provider collude with your bank, and charge you a special fee for the privilege of security. Let’s see you change your bank and ISP at the same time.  Double the bureaucracy, and imagine all of the termination fees!  Someone’s wet dream, to be certain.

Banking on the internet does need to become more mature and more secure.  But it still needs to remain on the internet because commerce is an essential function of peoples’ liberty.  Engaging in open, fair trade is absolutely necessary.  This is among the ideas in any well-constructed argument for the right to internet access.

The commercial forces that have persisted for over a century have an interest in keeping us tied to them, but the internet allows those chains to be torn off, melted down, and sold to the highest bidder.  And yet here comes Google proclaiming we should entrench them further.  Sigh.

So that’s out, but what about their other suggestions?  The other suggestions suffer the same flaw: any service that could be provided with a biased agreement with an ISP could be equally provided by another company with neutrality.  That’s what regulation in a free market is: the removal of barriers to market entry that prevent competition.  That’s why we have anti-trust laws, and it’s why no one should take the Verizon/Google proposal seriously, as they fail to recognize that fact repeatedly in that public document.

Okay, enough of that muck.  The bottom line is this: no institution shall rule the internet.

If the internet remains useful at all, it remains open.  If they want to destroy it, they can, but they cannot rule it.  Ruling it would destroy it, and it would take all of their gold with it.

IP Neutrality

RFC791, published in 1981, states that datagrams are independent entities, unrelated to any other datagram. Let’s call it what it is: Internet Protocol Neutrality. Viva IP!

Let’s stop calling it Network Neutrality, and let’s start calling it what it really is: Internet Protocol Neutrality.  If you are sending data via Internet Protocol (IP), then it should conform to the rules that have existed since the Internet began.  What are those rules?  Let’s quote from RFC791, shall we?

The internet protocol treats each internet datagram as an independent entity unrelated to any other internet datagram. There are no connections or logical circuits (virtual or otherwise).

What does that mean?  It means that if I send you a file, it filters down to the low levels of your Internet connection and is broken up into datagrams, chunks of data.  When these are sent out over the Internet, they are to be treated as wholly independent messages and routed as such.

That is the essence of network neutrality: a datagram is a datagram.

Now, let’s analyze the Google/Verizon proposal.  I do not have the stomach to ramble endlessly on each point, so I am taking pains to be brief on each of their “key elements.”

Consumer Protections

There is this word that crops up repeatedly in the document: lawful.  The word is problematic for a number of reasons, but primarily it is because the suggestion is that all data be inspected as deeply as needed to determine its legality.  Not only is this impossible (as data can always be disguised in a novel or unexpected fashion), but it flies in the face of the above-mentioned RFC.  It’s treating each datagram as a potential bad egg (if: blacklist) in the best case, and in the worst case it would only allow data it deemed innocuous to be routed (if: whitelist).

Non-Discrimination

This is probably the funniest of the “key elements.”  It states that data should be treated fairly, unless “the presumption [is] rebutted.”  No, really: the whole element relies on something that the element itself says may not hold!  So we might as well just chuck this one out (except it makes it seem like they care at all).

Transparency

Another proposal that an industry tell their customers what the deal actually is.  I’ve never, not once, in my entire life, seen a company actually do that.  If you want to change your phone, cable, internet, travel, bank, credit card, electricity, water, gas, insurance, or any other service (including government, depending on the department), good luck.  Their phone systems, their policies, their websites (including supposed industry leaders like Google) simply fail to meet their customers’ needs.  And it’s on purpose.

Your only real hope is that you get a real person that hasn’t been promoted or fired that is a good soul.  They are like angels from heaven when you find them, because you actually get what you need and you don’t have to kill anyone to get it.  But their legislative proposal isn’t going to deliver any angels.

Network Management

Boiler plate that basically indemnifies providers if they decide to violate any of the protective elements.  Some of the items here are valid (protecting against DoS and DDoS, for example), but that’s not its purpose.  It’s simply there to grant them permission to ignore the whole idea of Network Neutrality.

Additional Online Services

Here’s where my claim it should be renamed to IP Neutrality comes into play.  They aren’t talking about a separate, Non-IP realm where new services could be developed.  Their only distinction is based on whimsy: if the provider wants to charge you separately, or charge the provider of the service separately, then they can deem it to be an “Additional Online Service.”  More grinding away of any sort of teeth the Verizon/Google Network Neutrality could possibly have.

Wireless Broadband

They basically gave up at this point.  They flat out state that wireless is Laissez-faire.  Apparently Wireless never needs to stoop to the level of IP, eh?  No, it does… they just gave up trying.

Case-by-Case Enforcement

Here you can smell the arbitration clauses breeding like rabbits.  The FCC would have no rulemaking ability, regardless of ongoing harm that might be happening.  Consumers and providers would be “encouraged” (through binding arbitration agreements, no doubt at all) to forget the Seventh Amendment.  The FCC would have limited enforcement capabilities, and a maximum penalty of a measly $2 million (hardly deterrence if the service they are biased toward garners them an excess of the penalty, which it likely will).

Regulatory Authority and Broadband Access for Americans

Fully restricting regulation to Internet access itself and some palaver about “[spurring] deployment in unserved areas.”  We’ve given massive gifts to the telecommunications industry in the past, and they failed to roll out a single nanometer of the fiber or services they claimed they would.  Google is likely positioning itself to become an ISP in the long-term, and this is just one of the tools they hope will allow them to do just that.  Verizon, for its part, is watering at the mouth over the wireless portion, but also sees vast profits in its land-based broadband if this happens.

No amnesia for me, though.  The New York Times was conceptually right the first time and Google’s response was simply a misleading truth.