The Internet’s Oedipal Drama

The Internet regulation debate has unfortunately descended into Oedipal drama where the bad old phone companies are cast in the part of King Laius and the hero is played by brash young startups such as Google and Moveon.org. Our heroes are unfortunately blind to the larger context that surrounds their quest for power.

The Internet’s in trouble alright, but not by phone companies seeking to censor the blogs. As blogs are mostly unread, they don’t generate enough traffic to register a blip on the Internet’s traffic meters, so it’s simply not worth anyones time to shut them down. The carriers would much rather we chatter away than download movies or e-mail TV shows to our friends. Their concern is simply managing a mix of traffic well enough that we’ll pay our bills, however big or small they are.

Fundamental changes have already taken place in the Internet’s traffic load. In the good old days when the Internet was a private club for elite Universities and defense contractors, traffic was light even for the primitive pipes of the day. When congestion collapse appeared it was viable, just barely, to manage it with an end-to-end system that relied on good behavior on the part of the community, because there was a community. The overloaded Internet of the mid 80’s got new life from exponential backoff and slow start in TCP, because the most aggressive consumer of bandwidth was ftp, the files it transferred were short, and users were patient. They didn’t have spam, viruses, worms, or phishing either.

Now that the Internet has to contend with a billion users and multi-gigabyte file transfers with BitTorrent, the honor box model no longer works at all. When BitTorrent is slowed down by backoff, it simply propagates more paths, creating more and more congestion. In another year, the Internet is going to be just as unstable as it was in 1985.

This being the case, the carriers have to implement traffic limits inside the network, building on the mechanisms established as far back as the 1980s with RED and its progeny. This is the only way to control BitTorrent. There is no community and we’re not patient people.

And while they’re doing that, it makes perfect economic and technical sense to implement voice- and video-oriented QoS. Even Berners-Lee acknowledges this, he’s just on the neutrality bandwagon because he’s exercised about third-party billing for web content, a very obscure concern. So whether the phone company manages its links or not, whether they offer third-party billing for QoS or not, and whether the phone company competes with Akamai by offering content caching or not, the Internet will either change or collapse.

The network neutrality regulations proposed by political bloggers, PACs, Big Content companies and their Congressional collaborators pose a serious dilemma for Internet management. Ultimately, they’ll do nothing but make it unattractive for investors to connect routers to all that dark fiber that’s supposed to be out there waiting for us to use.

The loud voices who’ve taken up the “neutrality” cause out of their misguided concern about the Internet’s First Amendment are blind to the real issue.

Congress needs to hear from sane people that these new Internet regulations are poorly-crafted and premature. The issues of free expression and third-party billing need to be discussed, but not in the heat of a fever-pitched battle that’s been cranked way out of proportion by an angry mob of ignorant citizen engineers with axes to grind.

It might just be best to take the telecom bill off the Senate calendar so we can discuss it after the morons cool down. Their attention span is short, and a year from now they’ll be obsessed with different issues.

UPDATE: The Senate CST committee is debating the neutrality add-ons at this very moment. Internet congestion and server load are so high I can’t get a feed, however. What does that tell you?

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