Aliens Attack Internet, Democracy in Peril!

Our worst nightmare has come true: the Internet, the sacred font of all that is holy, true, and/or pornographic, has been taken over by Evil Fat Cat Media Barons (maybe from outer space, maybe from New Jersey). No more shiny city on a hill, no more promised land, no more yearning to breath free: the Internet is dead, and freedom with it.

The last nail in the Internet’s coffin was hammered by Comcast, one of the many cable TV operators to offer a little Internet access on the side. Intrepid reporters from the Associated Press have learned that Comcast prevents Jimmy, the pimply-faced teenager next door, from sharing his pirated copy of the Paris Hilton sex tape with the sundry users of BitTorrent who learned he had it on the Pirate Bay web site.

The sober apologists for the phone companies claim this is simply “reasonable network management,” but we shouldn’t be fooled. Throttling bandwidth hogs is a completely unreasonable use of the laws of physics to stifle dissent. How dare Comcast limit the bandwidth hogs to ensure the rest of us can do a little web surfing! They have an obligation under the public trust to provide each and every one of us with all the bandwidth we can possibly consume, at no increase in price.

If the laws of physics say that each upload on a shared cable takes bandwidth away from every user, I saw screw the laws of physics. Give me my own cable to connect to every web site on the world, for no additional cost. If the fundamental design of the Internet calls for my sharing thousands of cables with millions of people and being a gentleman about it, I say sometimes you have a burn an Internet in order to save it.

The noble champions of freedom by regulation at Save the Internet are on the case:

Cable and phone companies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon should not be allowed to play gatekeeper over their consumers’ ability to send or receive legal content over the Internet. It is time for Congress to pass laws that protect free speech on all 21st century communications.

Thank God for Save the Internet, one of the few organizations brave enough to stand up for the rights of the Jimmy the bandwidth hog (if you don’t count its parent, Free Press, or its benefactor George Soros, or his favorite charity Moveon.org (can I still mention their name without being stifled by Google?), or its contributors at Google, or their fellow fat cats at eBay, or their employee Craig Newmark, or the Christian Coalition, or the abortion people, or Arianna Huffington, Markos Moulitsas, Matt Stoller, or about a million other valiant opportunists, hucksters, and know-nothings.)

The cause of unlimited bandwidth at no additional price is going to be a hard sell, a tough slog, and an uphill climb. Legislative override of laws of physics is in its infancy and previous efforts haven’t gone well. Pi insists on remaining a fraction despite the Ohio Legislature’s efforts to reduce it to 3. But without this principle, our democracy will surely die.

I know this because I read it on the Internet.

But seriously, people, Comcast isn’t undermining any significant principle of free expression, network engineering, or customer relations. They’re applying a clever solution to one of the great unsolved problems of packet-switched networks (of which the Internet is one), the ability of users to consume more than a fair share of limited resources. Cable TV networks are especially vulnerable to this problem, because their means of sharing upstream bandwidth is highly inefficient. They download really fast, because there’s only one transmitter in the download direction, but they upload really slowly, because your cable modem has to negotiate with all of your neighbors for permission to transmit each portion of a packet. The reports indicate that Comcast’s policing takes effect after a certain number of BitTorrent transfers is found to be active, and prevents new ones from starting.

This is not content-based or viewpoint-based discrimination, in fact it’s the furthest thing from it. It is usage-based discrimination, and as long as it’s governed by an assessment of active traffic streams in the upload direction, it’s actually a step forward for network freedom. The punk next door limits my free speech with his incessant BitTorrent traffic much more than Comcast does.

The thing that’s so sad – predictable, but still sad – about the hysterical over-reaction to Comcast’s network management practices is that the people who are actually being helped by them are the first to allege harm from them. In some sense, they do so out of ignorance, but in another their motives are self-serving: they raise money by scaring people, and nothing scares like the poorly-understood practices of network engineering.

The gap between sound technical practice and the needs of advocacy groups to work ordinary citizens into a snit is the worst legacy of the network neutrality movement.

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