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A few posts below I linked to a short video clip that is something of a primer on Net Neutrality. Here, via Kevin Drum of The Washington Monthly begins what in this post is the grad school version — read up ’cause you’ll be tested on this tomorrow.

First off , Drum offers a long discussion of the problems inherent in the Barton-Rush bill currently working its way through Congress. Drum starts off a little bit dubious that the issue is as big as some are saying, but he works his way through the pros and cons. He starts by asking how bad the bill really is, and he ends with the following:

The key issue in the Barton-Rush bill is adjudication vs. rulemaking. I’m sure everyone else arguing about this issue is an expert in regulatory law, but I’m not and I can’t immediately tell how big a deal this is.

Basically, the argument is whether Congress should mandate some kind of net neutrality regime and task the FCC with making rules to implement it, or whether they should set out general principles, let things unfold, and allow the FCC to adjudicate complaints if and when they’re submitted. Rules have the virtue of being proactive, but also have the potential to hammer something into place that will turn out not to make sense. Adjudication is more flexible, but it’s also a lot slower. It allows telcos to stretch Barton-Rush’s net neutrality principles far enough to (possibly) put competitors out of business, safe in the knowledge that it will take years for the FCC to tell them to cease and desist.

He then comes up with four reasons to oppose the bill, ending with:

Finally, here’s probably the most convincing argument in favor of net neutrality: the telecom industry is against it. As near as I can tell, most telecom CEOs would sell their mothers into white slavery if they thought it would help them keep one of their competitors at bay for a year or five longer, and their record of bending, breaking, and twisting the rules in order to maintain their monopoly position — without which none of this would really matter in the first place — would fill a phone book. Frankly, you can’t go too far wrong simply taking the opposite side of the telecom industry on every relevant issue.

Drum links to this post on Dana Blankenorn’s blog which contains a speech by Reed Hundt, former FCC Chair, on the issue in which he contextualizes the net neutrality debate by discussing increasing oligarchism in the U.S. before getting to this simple and elegant passage:

The debate we ought to have is this. From the perspective of the right national goal do we want low cost very robust high speed access to this public property or a very expensive limited toll booth?

Access builders say it’s private property, and they can charge high prices to the public park of the Internet. And maybe I should make it less appealing to participate in the public commons and more appealing to particiapte in the private commons I will create. It’s a less robust version of the public property and more robust version of the private property.

It’s the same debate happening everywhere else. The only thing that is a little surprising is the astonishing abandonment of the field of discourse by the institutions you would have thought should talk about these things.

There’s a discussion brewing on the issue over at the Talking Points Cafe, and then there’s Freedom to Tinker which I’m assigning for extra credit. In it, blogger Ed Felton simplifies the technical issues that surround the debate. Here’s his intro:

One of the reasons the network neutrality debate is so murky is that relatively few people understand the mechanics of traffic discrimination. I think that in reasoning about net neutrality it helps to understand how discrimination would actually be put into practice. That’s what I want to explain today. Don’t worry, the details aren’t very complicated.

Think of the Internet as a set of routers (think: metal boxes with electronics inside) connected by links (think: long wires). Packets of data get passed from one router to another, via links. A packet is forwarded from router to router, until it arrives at its destination.

Focus now on a single router. It has several incoming links on which packets arrive, and several outgoing links on which it can send packets. When a packet shows up on an incoming link, the router will figure out (by methods I won’t describe here) on which outgoing link the packet should be forwarded. If that outgoing link is free, the packet can be sent out on it immediately. But if the outgoing link is busy transmitting another packet, the newly arrived packet will have to wait — it will be “buffered” in the router’s memory, waiting its turn until the outgoing link is free.

Buffering lets the router deal with temporary surges in traffic. But if packets keep showing up faster than they can be sent out on some outgoing link, the number of buffered packets will grow and grow, and eventually the router will run out of buffer memory.

At that point, if one more packet shows up, the router has no choice but to discard a packet. It can discard the newly arriving packet, or it can make room for the new packet by discarding something else. But something has to be discarded.

How that something is discarded is at the crux of the debate.

By the way, the above blogs are a very incomplete syllabus. Feel free to post your own links to web resources on this topic.

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