The FCC holds a hearing on Net Neutrality, and YOU! ARE! THERE!

So yesterday morning over coffee I was doing what most people do over their first daily cup o’ joe, which is bring up technorati and see if anybody’s talking about me. That process took me to Joho’s page, from which I learned that the FCC was to be holding an hearing on why Comcast sucks, I mean Net Neutrality broadband network management practices only hours thence. Now although to my surprise & delight, Wetmachine, thanks to the work of my fellow wetmechanics Harold Feld and Greg Rose has become quite the FCC policy site with a side-order of net neutrality, I had never been to an FCC hearing. A quick check of the boat and bus schedules showed that I could probably make it to Hahvahd in time for most of the festivities. I decided to go. So, after securing the blessings of Dear Wife and throwing a few things in a bag, off I set to lose my FCC-hearing virginity.

Below the fold, some totally subjective impressions of the day, told in that winsome wetmachine way that you’ve come to treasure, or if you haven’t yet, which you soon will. More sober-styled reports have surely appeared by now, and I’ll dig up some links & post them at the end for those of you who like a little conventional reportage to ballast what you get from me.

After an ill-advised taxi ride from South Station that cost as much time and a whole lot more money than a ride on the Red Line would have done, I found myself at the Hub of the Universe, Harvard Yard, and eventually at the Law School. I knew I was in the right place by the people standing outside carrying placards saying things like

FCC: You Cannot Keep the Internet Open behind Closed Doors!

I discovered that there were no available seats at the hearing, which was taking place in the auditorium one flight of stairs. A few dozen people were milling about in corridors on the first floor, noodling on their laptops, talking in bunches. They told me that some of them had gotten there an hour before the official opening time of the hearing (11:00) and found the hall already filled to capacity. Some people were listening to an audio stream of the event going on upstairs, but when I tried to do that the server was maxed out. So there I was, so near but yet so far, feeling stupid and $100 poorer.

Pretty soon, however, it was like old home week, as I discovered that I was setting next to Jon Bartholomew, Harold and Greg’s co-author. We had a pleasant little chat, met a few of the other people that were also waiting to see if they could get in, carved our initials into the Group W. bench, swapped lies, swatted flies, and so forth. Jon introduced me to several good folks that he knew from righteous organizations like Free Press. Whenever I introduced myself as being from Wetmachine, they said, “Oh, you mean Harold’s blog!”

To which I would mutter to myself, “so what am I, chopped liver?”

The “Comcast bussed people in” rumor surfaces

There was a rumor going around that the reason the hall was filled was because Comcast had hired a lot of people from job banks, bussed them to Harvard, and paid them to take up space. I got this story from several people, including a nice young reporter from the Boston University newspaper, who was trying to track down proof.

I said, “well, I would like to blog about that, but it’s only a rumor, so I guess I won’t.”

Then there was a bit of a buzz, and it so happened that the nice gentlemen of the Harvard U. police had said since people had been trickling out & not returning, they were going to let in some of us who had been waiting go in, standing room only. Eventually I got in. It was about 1:30 by then.

The Policy Panel

* Marvin Ammori, General Counsel, Free Press
* Yochai Benkler, Professor of Law, Harvard Law School; Faculty Co-Director, Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School
* The Honorable Daniel E. Bosley, State Representative, Massachusetts
* David L. Cohen, Executive Vice President, Comcast Corporation
* The Honorable Tom Tauke, Executive Vice President – Public Affairs Policy and Communications, Verizon Communications
* Timothy Wu, Professor of Law, Columbia Law School
* Christopher S. Yoo, Professor of Law and Director, Center for Technology, Innovation, and Competition, University of Pennsylvania Law School

I missed the prepared statements & most of the discussion. As I took my place along the wall, the first panel was answering questions from Chairman Martin.

Armori and Wu were saying generally intelligent stuff about the value of the Internet as a tool for democracy, and how privileging one class of application over another was inherently bad, or similar. (I wasn’t taking notes yet.) Then Commissioner McDowell asked about whether certain classes of applications might be better suited for some physical substrate of network (cable versus wireless? Not sure what he meant; the question didn’t make much sense to me), and whether the Commission should require, in the interest of disclosure, that “makers of protocols” advise that certain applications (for example Bittorrent? Games? VoIP?) might not work as well on some environments as others. Armmori and Wu kind of scratched their heads and replied, “no.”

Then there was a discussion of why regions outside the US have much better broadband access than the US does, and what kind of “network shaping” policies they might use in, for example, Japan, Korea, China. The chasing-of-the-tail phenomenon was discussed, whereby increased bandwidth availability causes more demand, etc. Video over the net was chewing up all the newly available capacity! We can build more bandwidth, but that will be consumed too! It’s a neverending tale of Sisyphus! Aiieeeeeeee!!!!

They were already way passed the designated lunch break time, and Martin asserted control to wrap up with a few questions for the Verizon and Comcast execs. I forget his first question, (something about “network shaping”, I think?), but the next question was brilliant. It went something like this:

Martin: “Congressman Markey does not believe that the FCC has the clear authority to issue directives about how you manage your networks, and so he has introduced legislation to expressly give us this authority. I don’t think that legislation is necessary, because I think we have that authority implicitly. What do you think? Does the FCC have the authority to regulate this?

Verizon Guy: Verily, Sahib, if you say it is so, it must be so. Verizon will be honored to implement the wishes of the most exalted commission. So it is written, so it shall be done!”

Comcast Guy: [clears throat, looks at ceiling. . .] Um. . . well. . . um. . ah. . .[mumble] [bullshit bullshit bullshit. . .] um. . . er. . .no.

Martin: What’s that? I can’t HEAR you! Does the FCC have the authority to tell you you cannot throttle back bittorrent applications?

Comcast Guy: [clears throat, looks at ceiling. . .] Um. . . well. . . um. . ah. . .[mumble] [bullshit bullshit bullshit. . .] um. . . er. . .

Martin: Blast you, fellow! Answer the question!

Comcast Guy: Well, 90% of our filing on this complaint says that there is no problem to solve, but 10% says that, no, you don’t have the authority. You cannot enforce regulations that you said were unenforceable when you promulgated them and blah blah blah blah blah bullshit bullshit bullshit, your mother wears army boots!

Martin: So you’re saying we can’t make you.

Comcast Guy: That’s right, you can’t make me. What are you going to do about that, Mr. Bigshot?

Martin: We have the authority to regulate unreasonable business practices. So, if we told you to stop doing it, would you stop?

Comcast Guy: [pause. . .] I’ll have to get back to you on that.

Martin then adjourned the hearing for 15 minutes, and I got a seat.

Panel Discussion 2: Technological Perspectives

Each of these guys gave a brief presentation (about 7 minutes each). There were powerpoints, of course.

* Daniel Weitzner, Director, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Decentralized Information Group
* Richard Bennett, Network Architect
* David Clark, Senior Research Scientist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
* Eric Klinker, Chief Technology Officer, BitTorrent
* David P. Reed, Adjunct Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab
* Scott Smyers, Senior Vice President, Network & Systems Architecture Division, Sony Electronics Inc.

Weitzner started off by saying that some kind of network management was essential, the question was how to do it. Then he said “we’re all peer to peer now”.

1) People use the Web in a peer-to-peer, synchronous way. P2P is more than just bittorrent. It’s the web itself.

2) Over 25 years the Web/Internet has evolved into a complex and finely tuned thing based on accepted conventions and a lot of goodwill.

He illustrated his point by showing an image of his personal web page, which has a Flickr box, an Amazon wish list, and a few other widgets. Blog-style applications, Web-2.0 applications depend on a user pays model, he said. “As a blog publisher, I don’t want to have to negotiate with Amazon, Flickr, and so forth.” Then he said,

“What’s at stake is everyone’s ability to communicate with everyone else.”

He concluded by repeating that the web was “a complex and delicately balanced set of agreements based on historic principles that have been in place for twenty-five years and which have allowed the Internet to become the force it is today.” By implication, Comcast was violating those principles.

Next Richard Bennett, an unaffiliated engineer that I heard (unconfirmed) was there at the recommendation of Comcast (note that no Comcast engineers were on the panels), went on with a little tutorial about how there were two questions:

1) Was it OK to practice network management?
2) Was it OK to practice network management based on applications?

Briefly, he was of the opinion that the answers were Yes and Yes. Some applications, like voice, are very jitter-sensitive. Others, like web pages, are less jitter-sensitive. Still others, like file transfer, are not jitter sensitive at all. And then of course there were messages that the net sent to itself to keep itself up and going; those needed to be prioritized above all. Also, congestion arises. So, entities that provide netorks need to be able to “shape” traffic, by application, to everybody’s benefit.

At some point he actually said that if the Free Press had their way and no shaping was allowable, the the Internet would become “Deadwood”, after the HBO series about a lawless town. There were some guffaws in the audience.

And then he reintroduced the Sisyphus theme, and said that we were stuck with network management, get over it, that Comcast should be given medals for their bold forays into network management on behalf of all of us, that their throttling back of Bittorrent without telling anybody what they were doing was the moral equivalent of what E Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment did at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, and that he, for one, welcomed his Comcast Overlord masters.

David Clark then spoke. He had some authority, inasmuch as he was Chief Protocol Architect when the whole damn “Internet” thing started.

He said that since the lawyers had spoken about engineering in the first panel, he, an engineer, was going to talk about pricing. His basic point was that flat pricing for unlimited access was going to have to go away, although “it will take a while for consumers to get educated about this.” He said that “the internet is what the economists call an experiential good” which means that you have to try it for a while to figure out what its value is to you. He discussed possible pricing models for a while; I didn’t think it was very interesting, but I know the FCC eats that stuff up so it was probably wise on his part.

But next he got into the bits and bytes, where I’m more comfortable (hey, I wrote my first TCP/IP — UDP technical manual in 1986, for Lord’s sake). He said that the blocking of applications was “troubling”, and told how when the Internet protocol was formalized, some people wanted to combine the header fields for “quality of service” and “type of application”, but that he, Clark, held out for two separate fields on the principle that the user, not the application, should decide the desired quality of service.

When an ISP shapes traffic, as Comcast did, based on type of application, then “there is a value judgement being made”. Clark said that users, not ISPs should make the value judgements. Then he said Rodney King type things about how we should all just learn to get along, and that it was really silly that Comcast should make its biggest users (like bittorrenters), into enemies instead of friends. We should find a way to work this out so that everybody was happy, he said.

Eric Klinker of Bittorrent next spoke. He said he had been at Excite@home (now, there’s a story! I digress) ten years ago when Comcast sucked. Their broadband capabilities were == lame. Comcast worked and worked for ten years to improve their broadband story, and they still == teh suck. And so, by the way, did Verizon. We have sucky broadband in this country because there was a damn duopoly and they had no incentive to increase capacity, which was why everybody else in the world had better broadband than we do.

He explained the origins of Bittorrent as a solution to the problem of how to move large files around on the Web. Then he splaned how Bittorrent rulze! because now even Hollywood used it, even legal people, not just pirates pimping warez and pr0n and hey, give me your addy I have some k3wl old-skool Kay Parker vidz I can pass onto you after the panel.

Broadband connectivity is the oxygen driving our information economy, Klinker said, and Comcast was an evil Freddy Krueger with a thick clear plastic bag to put over its poor little head and suffocate as we watch in horror, its eyes popping out of its skull, face turning blue. The USA was a third world country, broadband-wise. “The network is congested”, he said, “because the network is small.”

David Reed spoke next. He’s another guy with some Internet street cred. He had three key points:

1) The Internet implies adherence to protocols.

2) When any party on the Internet varies in their adherence to protocols, it damages all users of the Internet.

3) Methods exist for addressing problems. In particular, the Internet Engineering Task Force was the standards body that dealt with such things.

He then did a little show and tell with a paper envelope that he had labeled at the four corners to illustrate the kind of information in the header of each packet, which if I remember correctly, are sender, recipient, protocol to be used to interpret, and application type & quality of service. Then he opened up the envelope to show a paper inside which represented the type of information contained in the content of each packet. He demonstrated very explicitly what it meant to open up an envelope that was not addressed to you & look inside, which is what you would have to do, for example, to figure out if a packet was part of a bittorrent stream.

He came back several times to the Big Idea that the Internet was a fundamental agreement among autonomous networks to play by simple ground rules.

Comcast violates this fundamental agreement by doing deep packet inspection.

Both he and Clark discussed the beautiful way the Internet adjusts itself to congestion by dropping packets that cannot be delivered expeditiously. It is the responsibility of the sender to make sure that dropped packets are re-sent. When there is congestion, the sender slows down. “It’s not Deadwood. The Sheriff is built into the protocol.” When congestion eases, transmission speeds up. It’s elegant, it’s cool, it works.

Scott Smyers, of Sony, also got back to the theme that duopoly is not competition. He said that in the US market for televisions, Sony was competing with 80 vendors, not one other vendor. Looking ahead to where the Internet usage was going, with more and more video delivered over the net, Sony wanted the FCC to get a handle on this whole business, which was why they had filed a Motion to Initiate Proceedings, which is evidently a technical term that Harold Feld can explain to you if you really care about it.

Then there were questions from the commissioners. Kopps asked if we had enough information about how these networks worked in order to formulate policy, to which Reed, Weitzner, Clark all said “no”. They lamented the fact that Verizion and Comcast and so forth kept private all kinds of information about how their networks actually worked, so that it was hard to know how to shape them.

I couldn’t believe my ears. What I thought they were saying was that the FCC didn’t know enough to tell Comcast they they had to stop being assholes. About that time, Reed and Clark seemed to get it that that’s how their remarks were being interpreted, and rushed to say, “I don’t know where the line is, but I know they crossed it!” (Yes, allusion was made to the “I know pornography when I see it” chestnut.)

Reed explained that what Comcast had done was to forge packets, to send “reset” messages (meaning ‘stop this converstation’) packets to the recipients. He explained that this could only have been done by looking into the envelope. He then said that at first he was very skeptical that they were actually doing this, so he went to the house of a friend who had Comcast service and set up a torrent which he inspected at the home of another friend who also had Comcast service, and convinced himself of what they were doing.

As he spoke, he was getting visibly angry. He said that this was “black hat stuff that malevolent hackers would do,” and the he resented “Comcast opening my private messages and misrepresenting themselves as me”. This drew big applause from the audience, which had been mostly quiet.

As to whether the approach itself would be effective, he said, he did some research to see what had been published. “I thought there might have been a published paper someplace. I looked. There isn’t.” He said he had spoken with Comcast engineers who refused to tell him how they actually did this, on the grounds of “company confidentiality.”

Then he said, emphatically, (perhaps not an exact quote, I can’t quite read all my handwriting).

“Comcast acted unilaterally, impulsively, without disclosure, in violation of the spirit of the protocol. It is by all means unacceptable.”

At which time there was loud and sustained applause.

Then there was some commentary from the Commissioner Addlestein that the USA might lag in broadband, but we were still the innovation leader, to which the Bittorrent guy said, keep believing it, shit-for-brains “we cannot take that for granted. Innovation is coming from all over.”

Then, kind of like a halftime show at the SuperDuperBowl, they showed some videotaped comments of citizens who told why Net Neutrality mattered to them. Some of them had a deeper grasp of the technical issues than others, but they all made, I think, pertinent comments.

Then there was some discussion of standards bodies, and what the esteemed panelists would like to do next in terms of gathering information necessary to formulate a long-term policy. And then Martin adjourned the hearing.

That Comcast bussing-in-seat-fillers rumor again!

As we milled around after the hearing, people were still buzzing about all the Comcast people who had filled up the front rows. Some reporters claimed to have gotten some of them on tape admitting that they didn’t even know where they were, that they were only there because they had been paid. I expect stories on this to appear soon, if they haven’t already.

At the Berkman Center Reception

So afterwards there was a reception with classy snacks and beer and wine. About 50 or 60 people showed up for it (a guess).

David Clark was talking with somebody who spoke as if she were on the Commission (that is, “so what should we on the Commission do about it?”). I expect she was a Commission staffer.) So I muscled into the conversation, when they were talking about lack of capacity to handle all the traffic, and said something like “could the absence of competition have anything to do with it?” And then Clark said something or other quite reasonable about the fate of the telecom companies with all their miles and miles of twisted-pair copper wire networks that they didn’t even know how they worked, and I said, “Well, why do they have so much better broadband in Korea and Finland? For Lord’s sake, they have better access in the Arctic Circle than I have on Martha’s Vineyard.” Clark said, “because it’s government subsidized! If you want to talk about government subsidizing our telecom infrastructure, I’m going to need a lot more wine!”

Which, I wasn’t going to suggest that at all, but evidently he had just heard that idea from somebody else at the reception and thought I was of that tribe. I said, “the telecoms already are government subsidized! What about all the tax breaks they were given on the promise to build FIOS to every home by, like, ten years ago, promises the FCC won’t hold them to? A two-hundred million tax subsidy!” But other people were talking and I don’t think Clark heard me, but I think the FCC person did. (Probably just as well Clark didn’t hear me, since I wasn’t exactly sure of what I was talking about. That just came from something I read on Wetmachine once but don’t really remember.)

And then Clark said something about being on Brittish Telecom’s advisory board and how even they were going with DSL, not FIOS, because it was too expensive to build out fiber optics. And he said he had some sympathy with these companies, and the mountain of expense they were facing. So I said, “I would have had some sympathy with them if they were remotely responsible corporate citizens. But they are lawbreakers and extortionists. Verizon spies on us without warrants in expectation of retroactive immunity, and Comcast is inspecting our TCP packets. Why the hell should I have any sympathy for them? They dug their own holes. They’re horrible.” Some fellows nearby nodded in assent, but I didn’t think I was going to win any arguments with, like, one of the foremost authorities on Internet stuff on the whole freekin’ planet, so I backed off.

“My academic colleagues think I’m a shill for Comcast, and Comcast thinks I’m a communist!” he said. Or something like that. He said that the Bittorrent guy on his left on the panel and the “Deadwood” guy on his right were both a little ‘selective with the facts’, but that he couldn’t argue with both of them in a seven minute talk.

Anyway, I thought he was a nice guy, if a perhaps a tad arrogant.

I noticed Kevin Martin talking with small group and I sidled over to muscle into the conversation. The first thing I heard him say was “. . . they brought in all these people. I don’t know if they bussed them in or what. They took up the whole front section.” People then talked about the Comcast-bussing-people-in thing, which Martin seemed to accept as fact, and which also seemed to displease him. He asked if any of us had been kept out because there was no room, and I and somebody else said yes, and he apologized. Somebody said how many people had come from pretty far away for this hearing. “People really care about net neutrality.”

Martin introduced himself to me, and I said, “the one thing I want to say to you about Net Neutrality is that it’s fundamentally about maintaining the Internet as a vehicle for preserving and enhancing our democracy. Just look how participation is way up in this year’s elections, and there’s no question that the Internet is a big part of that. Net Neutrality means that any old citizen has the same ability to speak, to learn, to connect as any other citizen. It’s profoundly democratizing. If the corporations have their way they’ll replace that with corporatacracy and the rule of money.”

To which Martin replied (paraphrasing here), “I think that’s a very good point. Tim Wu was saying similar things, and I wish we had talked more about it. He said that not only is it good domestically, but it’s good for our position in the world, for showing how we really do favor free and open participatory democracy.”

So we talked about net neutrality and participatory democracy for a while. And then another fine fellow came along and joined the conversation (he was wearing a funny T-shirt that had a picture the old OSI stack model, with two additional stacks, “Financial” and “Political” with a little notation pointing to the “Political” layer saying “you are here”.) The conversation got onto the subject of GPS information in cell phones, which the FCC mandated.

Martin said, “I told those guys for two solid years to come up with a plan, but they never did. So I acted.” He talked about testimony from 911 call centers that 40% of their calls could not be responded to because they didn’t know where the caller was. But OSI-guy and I wanted to know about privacy considerations. Why, my neighbor with the cool T-shirt wanted to know, couldn’t the phones be programmed to only send geographic information when a 911 call was made?

Martin said that phone companies were legally enjoined from sharing private information, including GPS. I said, “why should we believe them? Why should we believe a word the telecom companies say? They lie and lie and lie, and expect immunity for it.”

Martin repeated with the regulatory and judicial history of how private information had been let out, had been used by stalkers, private investigators, etc, but now all that was now illegal.

I said, “That’s not my point. I’m concerned about them sharing the information with the government. They’ve been spying on all of us without warrants for years!”

Martin said something like “national security, law enforcement, those are different areas altogether.”

And I said, “What, and the law doesn’t apply?” but he didn’t hear me, as several people were speaking at once.

But he did say that when he was recently at the Davos Conference, he was on a panel with Congressman Ed Markey some mucky-muck from China; I think it was somebody more or less equivalent to CEO of Verizon. This fellow said, about GPS information in cell phones, “It’s great! The government can call me up and ask me, ”how many people were at that soccer game?“ and I can give them an exact number!” Martin said, there was a long silence until Markey asked him to repeat what he said, which he did, evidently without realizing how chilling that sounded to (some) Western ears. The government not only knew how many were at the soccer game, they knew who they were. “That got us thinking,” Martin said.

Martin was trying excuse himself to get away, but I managed to hand him my card.

“I hope you’ll check out my blog,” I said. “We follow you guys pretty closely.”
“What’s it called?” He said.
“Wetmachine.”
“Oh, sure! Wetmachine!” he said. “Harold’s blog!”

I guess if the Chairman of the FCC is reading my blog I can live with that, even if nobody knows I have anything to do with it. I feel like Ringo Starr in that Saturday night live skit where there’s an auction for Beatles memorabilia. People are bidding thousands of dollars for a guitar pick used by George, for a lock of John’s hair, for a shoelace discarded by Paul. Ringo himself is for sale, but nobody has any interest.

And in Conclusion

I’m glad I went. I heard good testimony from real experts on one of the most important issues of our day. I met some people, got some free food and drink, and got a chance to have my say about Net Neutrality to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Dammit, it made me proud to be an American, just like Michelle Obama! Not a bad way to spend a day and the price of a ferry ticket and bus ticket.

I’m still bumming about my decision to take a taxi instead of the T, however.

Oh, and about those links to other reports. I’m afraid I’m a bit time-limited, but I’m sure you can find them on your own!

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7 Comments

  1. Harold says:

    Man I wish I could have been there. My home town and my birthday. Waaaahhhhh!!! The FCC threw me a birthday party and I couldn’t come. (pout) Thanks for sharing.

  2. John says:

    Well Harold, you were there in spirit. It’s your world, I just visited it!

  3. bj says:

    John, I’m glad it was you who went. The commentary certainly took a way left turn compared to the way Harold would have reported it! Even if it is his blog . . .

  4. John says:

    bj,

    Thanks for the compliment, but I wish Harold had been there too. I’m sure he would noticed all kinds of things that I missed.

    The fact that so many more sober-toned people were also reporting on the event gave me liberty to get a little whimsical, but I think what I wrote was pretty accurate about the tone & substance of the testimony. The Bittorrent guy knew full well, as did most everybody else in the room, that a lot of stuff shared by bittorrent was pirated. But that subject was a big can of worms that nobody wanted to open (including me!) But he did kind of have that Ferris Beuller aura about him.

    I’m happy to call this Harold’s blog, as long as I get to prominently pimp my books here. Buy one, wouldjz?

  5. Ben Byrne says:

    Thanks for the post. You made me laugh out loud. A lot.

    I really, really want one of those OSI layer T-shirts.

  6. John says:

    Ben,

    Thanks. Mr. T-Shirt, whose name I didn’t catch, said that the design dated from the late 80’s & came from Evi Nemeth, a prof of Computer Science, now retired.

    When I got home I googled her up:

    http://www.cs.colorado.edu/

    Couldn’t find an image of the “financial political” stack online, and Dr. Nemeth’s address is “on my sailboat somewhere in the Caribbean”.

  7. Joe Y says:

    http://www.isc.org click on store buy t-shirt

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