Not feeling so neutral about net neutrality.

The launch of my new album might be interstate, or international, or interstellar or even interuniverse, but regardless, it will most certainly be internet, as I have no intention whatsoever of following T-bone Burnett’s advice to “stay completely away from the Internet”. Which has me thinking about net neutrality, because I would not want to see my album’s bits shoved aside to make way for Justin Beiber’s.

But first, a definition. Personally, I like Tim Wu’s, who is credited by many as The Mind Behind The Phrase net neutrality. Tim’s definition is clear and simple, namely “all content is treated equally.”

For a nobody like me, knowing that my content (MP3s and blog posts, mainly) will travel across the Internet with the exact same priority level as as anything Justin Bieber sends out makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. In other words, the Internet service providers just see packets and do not differentiate between those being sent by a no-name, brain damaged musician, such as myself, and a Rock God, such Justin. Pretty cool. So cool, in fact, you might wonder why anyone would really want to change this. But they do.

To understand why some might wish to fire a BFG-9000 at net neutrality, let’s revisit why the Internet was created and how it works.


Back in the cold war, the US was trying to develop an headless communications system, because, let’s say all traffic going from D.C. to L.A. gets routed through Chicago and in a sudden burst of Comradeship, Kruschev hits The Button. Before his aids can smash him over the head with a vodka bottle, a missile gets away and decides for itself that Chicago is “my kinda town.” In the aftermath, as Chicago smolders, how on earth will the president be able to arrange to have some hookers waiting for him at the Beverly Hilton when he lands in LA the next day? The Internet, that’s how.

Unlike other communication systems at the time, which worked by connecting bits of wire through central offices to a create a physical signal path between callers, the Internet used packets. So, to send a file or some text, the message would be broken up into packets, each containing info on where it was going and where it fit in the larger message, and be sent out over the wires, with routers along the way choosing the best path for each packet to take. For example, with Chicago gone,  packets heading from D.C. to L.A. would simply cruise around Chicago, with some possibly going through Texas and others taking a more righteous path through Kansas. Seconds later, all the packets of the president’s missive would reassemble in L.A. and inform the Secret Service to “PLEASE ARRANGE TO HAVE MS. SMITH MEET ME AT THE USUAL PLACE.”


For years, decades really, packet switching was used to send things that did not need to be experienced in real time, so the lag time as packets found their way across the myriad networks connected by the Internet was no big deal. Besides, when your Word document arrived, Windows would probably crash, so speed was hardly of the essence. Then someone had the hair-brained idea to send voice and video over the Internet. Unlike static files, streaming content, such as the president yelling at the Secret Service leadership back in D.C. about the brown M&Ms he’s just discovered in his hotel room, well, that’s got to arrive in the right order. Otherwise, the Secret Service might hear, “ckarMshatthefudoiningdregiebrownufucktaM&nmyfuckssingroomyord, BIATCH!”.

Which brings us back to net neutrality. Service providers such as Comcast and Verizon are saying that the whole “all content is equal” hippy dippy mumbo jumbo is, well, hippy dippy mumbo jumbo. What the world needs to do now is to change the Internet a bit so that packets that have to arrive in real-time can be given priority over those that do not. For example, telephone calls would be routed differently from  MP3 downloads, since telephone calls require data to arrive with very little lag time and in the right order, whereas a file can arrive as a jumbled mess and be reassembled without inconveniencing anyone. Naturally, the service providers want to be able to charge more to carry stuff like video and voice and here is where the real trouble arises. Damn capitalist pigs.


The number one concern about service providers being able to tier content and charge accordingly is that they will route their own content ahead of other people’s. For example, a television show produced by Time Warner would be given priority on Time Warner Cable over the competition’s content. I think this is a valid concern and in my opinion there are three paths we can go down:

As an investor in telecom stocks, I would be hit very hard by such a law, but I digress! Personally, I think this might be the best path in the long term because over time the Internet will get faster. If every service provider has to make the best of a bad situation they will, eventually. Sure, near term, investment would fall off and there would be some economic pain, but down the road, we would all be better off under such a scenario.

Google and Verizon have inked some sort of agreement that maintains net neutrality on physical wires but nukes it for wireless. I have not seen the actual plan, but on the surface it seems good, stipulating that the vast majority of the Internet would function under net neutrality, while the wireless slice (which is growing fast, I admit) would be allowed to prioritize certain kinds of traffic over others. To G/Vs credit, they define that traffic as categories, not as specific traffic within a category. For example, video would travel faster than PDFs, but within the video category, no one would get special treatment. Seems okay, right? Yes, but down the road, the temptation to route your own traffic ahead of your competition’s would be great, perhaps too great.

Man, this is so simple and seems so right, but then, Washington hates simple laws, so this will never see the light of day. But imagine, under such a scenario, service providers would clobber each other to be the best conduit for content, and content creators would be sure that their stuff travels with the same authority as anyone else’s. I know, I know, content providers might ink exclusive deals with service providers, who would then accelerate that traffic, but to solve this, I would just mandate that every content creator must offer his stuff over a minimum of three service providers.

So there you have it. As Meg Whitman would say (in that annoying, condescending voice of hears), that’s my stand, what’s yours?