I want to discuss this issue because I believe the whole point is being spun on both sides, because I think it's been getting more heat than light.
I'd like to define a few terms first so my positions may be understood.
A "transit provider" is whoever supplies a connection and you pay them. In the communications world, we often have "peerage" in which you and someone else send so much traffic between each other that it's usually symmetrical, it's hard to say which is using the other more, so both of you agree to carry traffic to and from customers on each other's network without either of you paying the other, and just call it a wash.
A "content provider" is someone who carries messages on their facilities for display or production. A TV station, a newspaper or a website are content providers. You're reading this on one right now, i.e. this website.
The whole issue of network neutrality came up because of transit providers sometimes doing unannounced changes to their networks to discourage or deny certain traffic either because they didn't like it, because they offered something competitive to that traffic and wanted people to use their offering, or because they were also a content provider and wanted to direct customers to their competing offerings.
Any content provider has the absolute right to pick and choose to whom they want to provide content. I don't allow spammers on my blog. Newspapers don't have to carry opinions or ads they don't want to. A cable company carries whatever non-local channels it wants or the customers ask for. (There are certain rules regarding copyright licensing that require carriage of local stations in some cases; I don't want to muddy the water here.) With one exception a TV station can refuse any advertising it wants to.
But a transit provider is supposed to be a neutral delivery system for content. It should also not change any content it delivers or decide what content you can access.
Comcast, Time-Warner Cable, Dish Network, Verizon FIOS or DirecTV can choose whether or not it will carry Fox News Channel, MSNBC, CNN or the Weather Channel in its capacity as a content provider having limited channel space. It does not have to carry them, but once it decides to do so it becomes a transit provider and should carry them to whoever orders the class of service that carries it. And absent some advertised limits it should neither prohibit them from reaching their customers nor stop customers from consuming it.
If someone wants to watch Fox News 24/7 on his cable or satellite service he should be allowed to do so, the cable company should not be able to say after they've watched it for 12 hours that they need to switch to MSNBC, either because they've watched too much of Fox News or because he should watch their offering. (Comcast is trying to buy NBC Universal which means I believe it will own MSNBC and thus be competing with Fox News.)
This is not a First Amendment issue. I am not saying they should have to carry any channel. But if they do offer it they should be "an honest broker" and act as a neutral transit provider.
In the case of the Internet, all sites are the same and all locations are the same. In this respect, an Internet Service Provider is a transit provider and should provide all customers access to all facilities on the same terms and conditions as anyone else.
I don't think we want Verizon to say you can't dial up Comcast and use their network to order phone service from them, nor have Comcast, if you get phone service from them, forbid you to call Dish Network over their phone lines. We should be able to expect a transit provider such as a telephone company or VOIP provider to route all calls without discrimination, even if it's to or from a competitor.
By the way, this is more or less the reason we have direct-dial service. Mr. Strowger, an undertaker, was concerned that the operators at the telephone company were diverting calls from his mortuary to a competitor's. He was so concerned he sat down and invented the direct-dial telephone switch from which all switch fabric we have now is derived. Because a mortician didn't want the telephone company to play favorites at the expense of his business, all of us can call anyone we want directly.
The non-discriminatory requirement on carriage by a transit provider is especially important in cases where the provider of transit is effectively the only provider available, often because they got a franchise to provide service in an area, often obtaining what has been an exclusive franchise. If I'm at a bus stop, I expect the bus will stop, pick me up, allow me to move to the place for wheelchairs, and as long as I behave myself, take me along the route and let me off at the appropriate stop. (If I wasn't handicapped I'd be giving the example of standing at the stop, taking a seat or standing, then getting off.)
I hate to raise the issue because it sounds cheesy but I'll use it anyway. I'm not sure what your opinion of what happened to Rosa Parks when she refused to give up her seat to a white man was, but I think it is instructive. She wasn't being ejected, just asked to move. But I think most people feel it was unreasonable for her transit provider to effectively downgrade her service because some other customer wanted it.
Downgrading or especially denying service when you're a monopoly transit provider effectively strands someone. I think if someone is acting as a transit provider they should provide equal and non-discriminatory service to all customers and to all providers. If I want to watch CNN or the Cartoon Network or the History Channel, I should be allowed to do so and not told to switch. If our example customer chooses to watch Fox News and never even know of the existence of Rachel Maddow on MSNBC he should be entitled to do so.
If I want to use any specific website or any specific protocol on my Internet connection I should be allowed to do so since I presume my Internet provider acts as a transit provider.
The often mis-raised issue is that if it is mandated by the government it is an issue of free speech, and I disagree. This is not the sort of situation where a content provider is being asked to carry a message they disagree with. Nobody is asking Verizon to allow someone to put things up on their websites or to otherwise host content they don't want to. What the whole idea here is, since you sell me transit, I should be able to use it as I see fit as long as I behave. As long as my conduct doesn't interfere with other people's use and doesn't violate someone else's rights, a transit provider should do just that, provide transit.
This whole issue got started when Comcast started interfering in people's use of BitTorrent, a file sharing protocol which has both legitimate and (depending on your opinions) illicit uses. Yes, it can be used to pirate motion pictures. But it also can be used to quickly distribute CD and DVD images of legal Linux distributions.
[Update 2011-04-02] I found out after I originally wrote this that Blizzard Entertainment uses the BitTorrent protocol to distribute upgrades to some of its games; while I'm not sure if they use it to upgrade World of Warcraft they do use it for some of their other offerings. In fact, some people are upset because Bell Canada got the Canadian Radio and Telephone Commission (CRTC) to allow them to increase fees charged to resellers of DSL (as well as direct customers), customers either had unlimited service or had limits similar to Comcast at 250GB a month; now customers are only going to be able to get about 25 GB of data a month and will have to pay an extra $1 a month per GB of traffic; with some of Blizzard's downloads exceeding 1.5 GB it doesn't take much to blow through a 25GB monthly usage cap that offers no protection against overusage.
Oh yeah, that's another thing, you can't even buy a way to protect against overage. You can't get warnings you're amount to use too much, you can't buy protection against overage, and you have to depend on them that the amount they claim you're using is correct, and when it's in their advantage to overbill people where they can't even know they've been overbilled (does your router have any way to count the amount of traffic you've sent and received over the Internet? Mine does not), the temptation to do that anyway is there.
This is basically an attempt to kill NetFlix's streaming video service, because the added overhead cost of a gigabyte of data - about an hour's worth of television - over the network is about 1c and charging $1 for it makes streaming large amounts of data basically unaffordable. So, of course, it encourages people to use Bell's cable service or its pay-per-view services which compete against NetFlix. I mean, why pay Bell an extra $20 or more a month to get cable when you can subscribe to unlimited video rentals from NetFlix if you already have Internet service?
While they are within their rights to do this, the basically naked greed of this over a connection they basically now have for no extra cost and has been amortized over perhaps as long as 100 years, that they originally got through being a protected monopoly, has so upset people that the CRTC has put the proposal on hold for the moment. [End Update]
Comcast didn't like the amount of traffic BitTorrent generated, and
started secretly sabotaging people's sessions. Using packet managing,
they would interfere with connections, reset connections and throttle
traffic. But the most serious issue was that they did not tell anyone
they were going to do this, did it surreptitiously, and until the
Associated Press had someone use sophisticated tools to prove what
they were up to, lied about it and said they weren't doing it.
Basically the whole point started because, in essence, Comcast was
defrauding its customers. I note that because of this, Comcast now
explicitly states in its published terms and conditions that you have
a limit of 250 GB per month for a residential Internet account and if
you go above that limit you are subject to a higher rate.
I think the idea of easements in land is instructive. If I purchase a
piece of property and it's completely surrounded by someone else's
property, they can't simply say "Go buy an aircraft and build an
airstrip or helipad on your land," they have to allow me a means to
get on and off my property, the means being access through their
property, the access being called an easement.
If you live in an exclusive beach area, your ownership ends at the
mean high-tide mark. This allows two things: for other people to have
access to the beach, and for other property owners whose property
might only be accessible from the beach to have access to their
property without trespassing on yours.
If you lived on an island that had a single road over a bridge, you
would expect the road operator to act as a transit provider. If you
order a pizza from Dominoes, they don't say that it's lousy pizza and
refuse to let their vehicles across, or charge them more because Papa
Johns has paid a fee to ensure it gets priority treatment for its
deliveries, or shunt your order to Pizza Hut because the bridge owner
owns the local franchise. You would expect that any automobile or
delivery vehicle less than the weight limit of the bridge would be
admitted on the same terms as any other. Whether that bridge and road
was owned by a private company or a government entity.
[Update 2011-04-02] I didn't think about this one: if you're using the bridge every day, and it's a toll bridge, you should pay $1.00 or $1.50 per crossing or whatever it is. If you're crossing the bridge 30 times a day, the price should be $1 or $1.50 per crossing and shouldn't be jacked up to $10 per crossing after the first 20 crossings on the presumption because you use the bridge more you should see your rates upped. In fact, typically heavy or commercial users can buy reduced price crossings.
They don't advertise it and you can't buy them at the toll booths any more, but travelers in the Baltimore area, who are heavy users, can purchase ticket books where the usual $1.50 per crossing drops to 10c, it makes the EasyPass electronic system and its pitiful discount look like gouging by comparison (plus you don't have to fight them over errors to your account and your trips can't be tracked through tickets the way they can be on EasyPass). And the ticket books are transferable to a different vehicle of the same class; commercial users have one kind and cars have another. You can't remove tickets from the book, the collector at the booth has to do that, but anyone who has a booklet can use them. Commercial shippers who use the Port of Baltimore buy so many ticket books they'll have them in stacks in their offices so the drivers can just grab or return them when they finish their shifts. It makes trips basically cheap enough that even if you only use 1/4 of all the tickets before they expire it's worth buying a book.
If I purchase a bus pass, I pay an amount based on the typical estimated usage, which for most people is a trip to and from work 10 times a week, and in fact, is discounted a little below that to recognize the time value of money, e.g. the bus company gets the entire amount of the pass in advance. So if I'm using that bus pass 5 times a day, 7 days a week, I don't pay anything extra. Nor do they hit me with usage caps or implement high usage surcharges whether I'd pay for each trip or use a pass. [End Update]
And that is what I think Net Neutrality is. That when you get service
from a transit provider they treat all traffic equally. No more, no
less. If someone wants higher bandwidth or other features you're free
to order it. But you allow me to use whatever I ordered, I can use
any service even if it competes with something you offer, you don't
restrict my use up to my permitted bandwidth, and you don't sabotage
Even if you're not doing much filming or wouldn't be interested in getting one - or can't afford it, like me - check out this consumer-grade video camera sold by Amazon.com designed to shoot 3D video. I was amazed that they're actually available to the general public.
I mean, I bought a perfectly good $79 video camera that generally I couldn't even use it in HD because the files were too graphically intense for Windows Media Maker to edit them on my old computer. (I had to shoot CIF, or standard mode.)
Now that I've upgraded my newer computer by boosting the memory from 1 gig to 3 and the disk space from .08 terabytes (that's 80 gig to you) to 2 terabytes, I believe I now should be able to try doing my YouTube videos in HD.
Watch for my next exciting film, "How to make an Omelette, in HD!", coming soon to a computer near you.
It just occurred to me that I can't use a 3D camera, I wouldn't know whether the shots were right. I'm blind in one eye, so I do not have depth perception. No parallax.
The Post Office has one big problem; anything in a usable size is even more expensive. Anything that's inexpensive is in an inconvenient size.
For the prices listed in this column I used the Post Office's website and presumed an item being mailed the longest possible distance I could think of, Miami to Anchorage. Maybe Miami to Honolulu or Portland, Maine to Honolulu might be more but I doubt it would make much difference.
Actually, it doesn't; I just looked it up. There are 8 zones in the United States, local being a Zone 1 charge all the way up to Zone 8, the maximum rate. Sending something from Alaska to Maine, Miami or Montpelier (Vermont) is Zone 8. But Anchorage to Honolulu is also a Zone 8 mailing. This only applies to packages; First-Class mail (anything under 4 ounces) is the same between any two points in the U.S. Anything above 4 ounces up to 70 pounds is no longer "First Class," it's "Priority Mail" unless it's time sensitive, then you use Express Mail (or Expensive Mail, take your pick). Merchandise can be sent (slowly) using Parcel Post for packages, but sometimes that's more expensive than Priority Mail. For really heavy packages, if they're manuscripts, disc or tape recordings or similar items they can be sent as Media Mail which is a lot less expensive, but the disadvantage is you give the Postal Service permission to inspect it if they want; it's presumed not to be "sealed" even if the package is sealed.
If I had a book that was 6,800 pages - and the way I write I probably could do one if I took 15 years and worked every day - it would weigh 68 pounds. A Zone 8 mailing would cost $114 by Priority Mail, $67 by Parcel Post, and $29 by Media Mail. But the real issue is mailing ordinary items or even documents; if I can fit them into the Post Office's standard packaging, i.e. what the Postal Service has decided is standard, it's much cheaper.
If I want to mail a single-page letter, if I'm willing to fold it into a #10 envelope - the standard fold into three parts - it's 44c and actually I can send up to 6 pages at the same one ounce price. But send that same single-page letter in a 9x12" Manilla envelope and it's 88c.
Priority mail has flat-rate packages for larger items like big documents, but any boxes that are inexpensive are the wrong size, any that will fit unfolded pages cost a lot.
If I want to send documents either I fold them (for small documents), or I have to use my own packaging. None of the "inexpensive" flat-rate boxes will support 8 1/2x11" pages directly except the flat-rate envelope. But if the document is larger than what will fit in a typical "pak" style cardboard carrier like USPS, UPS or FedEx, none of the lower-cost flat-rate boxes will allow unfolded pages. Even some of the larger packaging still won't work for full-size pages. In many cases the flat-rate packaging is more expensive than regular packaging.
The "small" flat rate package 8-5/8" x 5-3/8" x 1-5/8" basically requires if you're sending a business document to fold it in half. Otherwise you're looking at double or triple that price. The small flat-rate box ships for around $5. Medium flat rate (13-5/8" x 11-7/8" x 3-3/8" or 11" x 8-1/2" x 5-1/2") or Regional box A (13-1/16" x 11-1/16" x 2-1/2" or 10-1/8" x 7-1/8" x 5" ) is near or just above $10. But if you need to ship unfolded 8 1/2 x 14" documents, either you have to use Regional box B (16-1/4" x 14-1/2" x 3" or 12-1/4" x 10-1/2" x 5-1/2") at about $14.75, or any size box as Priority Mail at whatever the weight for that size costs. But it's really only going to work for smaller items. The largest flat-rate box is just shy of 1/2 cubic foot (12" x 12" x 5-1/2"), if it's off in one of these directions you can't get flat-rate.
So I can ship a box of floor tiles, it contains 45 tiles and is 5.3 inches by 12x12, and weighs 45 pounds, in a flat rate box, costing roughly $15 for any two points in the country. But a 10 pound package of 8 1/2 x 14 paper (about 1000 pages, or two reams) will cost $31 to ship. Unless it is a manuscript, then it can be sent Media Mail for $5.89. Parcel post will cost about $9.50.
Going back to my 6,000 page tome, as a comparison, anything I can fit into a 1 square foot by 5 1/2 inch container ships anywhere for $14.95 or less as long as it doesn't weigh more than 70 pounds.
I spoke earlier about paperwork being mailed and how the Post Office talking about the "low low price" of Priority Mail flat-rate envelopes, where a 30 page document can be mailed for $1.38 across the country vs. the "low low" price for Priority Mail of $4.95.
Why we still mail documents makes very little sense. I've come to realize it's basically inertia. I have copies of my signature scanned into the computer, when I have to e-mail a document image I use that. With one exception almost anything could be done via PDFs and scanned documents as long as there was a means to include a signature such as pasting an image of it on it. The only thing you have a problem with are documents that need authentication, e.g. notarized documents (or potentially ones requiring Medallion guarantee, which is a higher standard than mere notarization; a bank employee has to guarantee the signature is valid. That's used for things like stock certificates and so forth.)
This is where electronic notarization is working to find a way to solve that problem so that documents in a computer can be "signed". What we have to realize is that signing documents is intended to provide two things; authentication and non-repudiation. The signature itself is done to authenticate the party who signed it. A second party witnessing a signature such as a notary, is to provide non-repudiation, i.e. you can't claim you didn't sign it when the notary countersigns what you signed.
Electronic "keys" in Public Key Signature systems (PKS) attempt to provide these, because you have a private key and a public key; you use your private key to mark the document with a hash (a mathematical summary of the contents), anyone else uses your public key against the hash to confirm it's valid; supposedly you can't generate the hash unless your private key made it. If your private key hasn't been compromised, obviously you must have done it.
One way to authenticate a transaction where two parties know each other is to create a hash with my private key, then hash that with your public key. If your private key hasn't been compromised, nobody else can create the same hash, then you know it's directed to you, and if the hash is correct when using my public key, nobody else could have written the document. It also means the document could not have been altered in transit. It provides authentication of both the sender and the content, and non-repudiation of the source of the document.
If we could get good, working PKS schemes properly operational it could be used to stop a lot of botnet generated spam, because spammers couldn't generate mail to people on my contact list if they infected my computer and stole my list because either they wouldn't have my private key and might not have your public key, so they couldn't impersonate me by sending a signed message to you. The hashes wouldn't match and you would know it was forged.
If you aren't allowed to send mail from your PC directly and have to use a standard mail server on your ISP, because places required the mail transfer agents of each domain to sign their mail, it eliminates botnet-transmitted spam, since the botnets sending mail wouldn't have the ability to send mail directly, nor could they impersonate others because they don't have the key to sign the documents. This would then eliminate spam from all but regular ISP to ISP e-mail. So then, if ISPs throttled customers who don't normally run mailing lists, it would slow down the amount of spam they could generate.
It might just help the problem. If messages had to be signed, either by the sender, or the ISP, or both, someone would have to come out from hiding. You could still send mail anonymously or pseudononymously but you couldn't do it in bulk, which is where the money is in sending out spam. No bulk, no profit.
We have a problem with moving money that isn't stored electronically. As the saying goes, "fast, easy and cheap, pick any two."
It's very expensive to move money from one party to another quickly unless it is electronic, then it's just expensive. Moving it slowly is cheap, but if you need it now that may not be an option.
For cheap transfers, either I need to know your bank and account number, ship cash to you, which means a potential loss, or mail you a check. If you have a checking account where I can deposit the money then if I can get to your bank then it won't cost anything, but you have to let someone know your number.
For fast transfers - or purchases by phone or Internet - I have to put money into an electronic form. The faster you need it the more expensive it gets. If I have to give you immediate cash it's going to cost as much as 10% if I have to wire it to you. If I use a bank wire it's going to cost $10 plus you may have to pay an incoming wire fee. If you can accept Paypal, that's a pretty good option if you can move the amount due fast into an account in case they stiff you or you have a problem but someone has to pay a 3% fee plus moving money from Paypal to a checking account tied to the Paypal account can take several days.
Loading a prepaid card will cost about $5 for up to $500. An ACH transfer to someone else's checking account, which is the equivalent to Direct Deposit, is essentially the same as a wire transfer and costs about $10. These are very high for a transaction, that if you have a commercial account, can be as little as about 10c. If you have a reloadable debit card that can be loaded by ACH transfer, it's the equivalent of a checking account except they won't accept check deposits; all money has to be electronic.
Another issue is the potential for account freezes and chargebacks. This was where Wikileaks had a problem; they should have had, not one, but one hundred accounts (or several hundred), so that if you donated money to them only 1% know any specific account number and thus not the entire funding stream gets cut off if someone tells Paypal or tries to convince Visa or Mastercard to stop allowing payments, since not all account numbers are known or directly discoverable.
This is where the ridiculousness of high charge-back fees for accounts that get a lot of people claiming they didn't make the transaction make no sense. Supposedly the chargeback fine, which is in addition to the transaction fee, can be thousands of dollars if you get a lot of denials. This is, of course, ridiculous.
If you're selling porn or something potentially objectionable you should be using a lot of accounts so you don't get to being hit by huge chargebacks because if you get a lot of chargebacks you stop using the account that gets them and switch to a new one. In fact, it might be best that anyone who might have a potential for chargebacks should only use a specific account a month at a time (or maybe even less) so the risk for being hit for a large chargeback fine goes way down.
Say you use 12 accounts, one each month, plus a transfer account so there's never money in an account more than a day or two, if you get people who otherwise complain, well, as it turns out, once the money is gone, it's gone and the sender might file a complaint, either the receiving bank eats the chargeback or the sending bank does, but the merchant has basically immunized themselves against chargebacks.
Even better, use multiple entities so that the bank can't use set-off to take money from one account if there is a question about a transaction causing a chargeback. Or drop the account once one occurs so you never have but one. It's basically companies who sit around fat, dumb and stupid that end up paying for chargebacks. Smart companies can structure themselves for defense against attack and avoid charges, crooks will do the same thing.
A lot of people do not want to bother with the effort to protect themselves. They don't want to take the time to structure their affairs properly such as having multiple bank accounts, setting up a corporation or LLCs for their business (or multiple corporations/LLCs in some cases), and so they basically paint a big target on themselves, saying "please sue me, please tax me at the highest possible rates, I'm stupid and love being an easy mark for anything you want to take from me."
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This is where I make comments on any subject I find of interest. My political comments are in the Politics section, and technical items are in the Computers section. Note, if you want to make a comment, e-mail it to me at email@example.com. I am sorry that I had to disable comments, but after I had deleted the 300th worthless piece of spam comment on this blog and receiving exactly zero valid comments, I decided to stop allowing spammers to excrement all over me and my blog. If you have *anything* at all to say, send it to me in e-mail; if it is even the slightest bit relevant - even if I don't agree with it, I will post it. (As soon as I find a way to stop spammers from posting junk I'll allow direct comments.) Note that if you are a visitor and post a comment, it defaults to "draft" meaning I have to approve it before it is visible, so if you're posting spam, don't bother, nobody will see it.