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December 29, 2008 7:41 AM

We Still Can't Define "Net Neutrality" But I Know This Ain't Right

My biggest complaint about the debate around net neutrality has been the general lack of definition regarding what that term actually means, which can be frustrating as it diffuses the intellectual underpinnings of arguments in support of the concept.

One of the leading minds in this discussion, with whom I've sparred with on this issue in the past, is David Isenberg. He's one of the few with a deep technological understanding of what net neutrality means.

And yet he just put up a post that in large part confirms the lack of a precise definition over what "net neutrality" encompasses.

Not only does he lay out a taxonomy of six different issues related to net neutrality debate, but he also acknowledges that there's been another recent attempt by Ed Fendel that broke this down into three primary parts, and yet he wasn't able to resolve these two lists:

"When I sat down to write this, I had hoped for a simple, straightforward mapping between Ed's taxonomy and mine. Unfortunately, no. All three of Ed's points--about engineering, economics and free speech--bear in different degrees on all six of my issues."

While I'm very encouraged by these attempts to flesh out what net neutrality actually means, I can't help but wonder about the efficacy of trying to legislate an issue we can't yet even fully define. This isn't to say we can't or shouldn't put in new net neutrality regulations over time, but instead that before doing so we at least need to have a common understanding of what the issues are, the words mean, and how legislation can address the problems. And considering that the leading technical minds on this issue are still struggling with this, I'd suggest patience rather than haste in formulating policy to resolve it.

But on the flip side, I can't ignore the clear and present need for further rules regarding the behavior of ISPs, as evidenced by this story about Fairpoint Communications, the company that bought up Verizon's landline business in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

They've announced that on February 6th their customers will no longer be able to access webmail from the third party sites of AOL, Yahoo, or MSN. While still be able to get content from these sites, in order to get into email you'll have to go through the MyFairPoint.net portal.

To be honest, I'm a bit flabbergasted that Fairpoint thinks this is a fair thing to do. It's also shockingly tone deaf to this larger debate around net neutrality, much like Comcast's treatment of P2P traffic earlier this year. It makes you wonder if either they've not been paying attention or they don't fear legislation preventing this behavior, neither of which makes much sense.

Does Fairpoint really think they're going to get away with this? What's next? Will you no longer be able to buy goods at sites like Amazon.com but instead will have to make all purchases through a Fairpoint portal?

If so it seems like not far behind will be a push to have some sites pay for priority placement that excludes others, maybe even going so far as Fairpoint saying you can use one email provider but not another.

While we may still be struggling to define the overall concept of net neutrality, I can tell you one thing for certain: what Fairpoint's doing ain't right and we need to make sure that practices like this, that leverage the position of network operators to limit access to sites while not adding any additional value, must be stopped.

If Fairpoint wants to find a way to add value to the webmail experience I'm all for that. But preventing users from going to a legitimate site just so they can divert them through a portal that Fairpoint can monetize doesn't pass the smell test for me.

And worse yet, for anyone concerned about the ramifications of too hasty net neutrality legislation these actions provide clear ammunition for what a world without net neutrality could look like, and it's not a pretty picture.

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Comments (2)

Definition: (Best one I have found)
Network Neutrality is a technical principle about the configuration of Internet routers.

If Google signs an agreement with ISP to get its content to customers more quickly, that doesn't necessarily mean that a network neutrality violation has occurred.
We have to look at how the speed-up was accomplished.

If, for example, it was accomplished by upgrading the network between ISP and Google, as in installing a Fiber link between the two or adding a Cache Server at the ISP site, network neutrality advocates would have no reason to object.

In contrast, if the ISP accomplished this by re-configuring its routers to route Google's packets in preference to those from other sources, that would be a violation of network neutrality.

Posted by Jim A on December 29, 2008 4:12 PM

With all due respect, let's not 'go postal' here. I read the slashdot story which then linked to another newspaper article which apparently is the original source. The original article deals with the innocuous transition of users who use VZ as their ISP for email. They will have to change to a new domain. Pain in the ass, but no foul. The article is sloppy writing and the single offending sentence can be read in two ways. One version sets off alarm bells. My read, and I could be wrong, is that the author was careless and clueless.

Most people don't know that one can, via Yahoo (I know, have done it), access conventional email acccounts on any domain which supports POP. Why somebody would, I don't know, but it's possible.

Since the entire article is dealing with the transition from VZ to FairPoint as an ISP, take it in that context.

So, once the change in domain names happen, the old email won't work if one uses Yahoo web mail to access it. The statement that one **must** use the FP portal to get a Yahoo domain email is likely wrong because the writer probably doesn't understand how email works.

I could well be incorrect, but that seems to be the case.

Posted by Nick Stanley on December 30, 2008 10:05 AM

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