The Internet’s Three Principles

This is the text of the speech I gave at NYU on OneWebDay. I want to thank OneWebDay and the Internet Society of New York for their support. Streaming video includes the Q&A session, which was excellent. The Q&A starts at 25:28.

Thanks to Joly MacFie for the video.

Text of the speech:


Today, on OneWebDay, we want to urge the FCC to assert its right to protect the three key principles of the internet, principles that have made it friendly to innovation and competition. We want the FCC to insist that the internet be open, that computers be connectible from end to end without interference, and that internet management be open and transparent — not secret and in the service of the companies who pay for it to be the way it is.

OneWebDay was founded in 2006 to celebrate the internet, a uniquely organized piece of infrastructure that has become critical to all of our lives, directly for those who use it, and indirectly for those who use the services that now depend on it, such as education and banking and healthcare.

When I first read about the internet, in Ed Kroll’s book, the Whole Internet User’s Guide and Catalog, published in 1993, it was described as a cloud. The reason it was described this way is that the internet was not built from the top down. It was built by network administrators at military institutions and at universities, who built local networks and allowed those local networks to connect to each other.

This is the first principle of the internet, the End to End principle. It says that any machine must be able to connect to any other machine, and that any machine can use any application. There can be no internet gatekeeper to decide what can and cannot be done.

Not everyone likes this. The internet receives many of the criticisms that are leveled at democracy. The internet is less efficient than it could be, if it had managers. The internet is less secure than it could be, if we could police it by reading everyone’s mail. The internet will be brought down by the weight of the people that make it up, because they will inevitably act against the interests of the internet, and you only have to destroy democracy once for it to never return.

The internet when it began was an American thing. It was built by our military and the educational institutions that work with it. It was built on American principles and one of those is openness. Another is that the whole world wins when science and technology advance.

The internet was built on the principle of openness. The second principle is that users should be allowed to know how the internet works. Many technologies are secret. There are parts of your cell phone, if you have one, that you’re not allowed to change. But the internet is open, and that means that it can be changed not just by an institution with a big research budget, but also by two guys like Sergey Brin and Larry Page (and some California venture capital). It can be changed by the guy who built Facebook who, if the latest Hollywood movie is at all accurate, may not be a nice guy.

It can be changed by you and me. Any of us can build a web page, start a blog, and participate in an internet community. It can be changed by a speech at NYU by Professor Eben Moglen who inspired the Diaspora open source challenge to Facebook with a speech that included the phrase, “I’m not suggesting [Facebook] should be illegal. It should be obsolete. We’re technologists, we should fix it.”

Not everyone agrees that the internet should be this way. Some might want users to take a test to qualify to build a web page. In South Korea, they want a crackdown on celebrity gossip and internet suicides. Here in the U.S., a recent comment post to the FCC blog says that the internet should be illegal because it contains pornography, and many around the world might agree with that. In some parts of the world, they want to make defaming a specific religion illegal.

As long as there is free speech in a democracy, there will be speech that is abhorrent to some people. But if you forbid that free speech, that you shut down a key component of democracy.

Perhaps the most startling aspect of the internet model is the cloud itself. In reality, there is some management within the cloud, such as DNS servers and internet registrars, and ICANN itself, on whose board Susan Crawford once served.

But although the internet is managed, it is owned and maintained by its constituents. It is built out by internet service providers large and small, and run by an international community of network managers who can, when the need arises, fight problems such as organized crime together but who for the most part spend their days making sure that their piece of it runs well.

Sharing, openness, and local ownership are not really big on the agenda of most companies and governments today. But they’re what makes the internet work and what keeps it unique. We’re here today to say we want to keep it this way.




FCC Identifies, Fines VoIP Blocker
Madison River Communications pays $15K

(old news – 12:40PM Friday Mar 04 2005)

These issues have not just cropped up this year. They have been with us for a long time. In the past five years, however, there has been one big change. Until 2005, the internet mostly served to disintermediate non-telecoms businesses, such as bookstores, the postal service, and other intermediaries who worked between businesses (B2B) or who connected businesses to consumers (B2C).

Shortly before 2005, VoIP went mainstream. It had been around for a long time. Jeff Pulver had built his VoIP-centric career on the technology starting in 1999 and even earlier. In 2005, a local phone company called Madison River Communications was fined by the FCC for trying to keep Vonage phone calls off its network.

(There are persuasive conspiracy theories, such as Fred Goldstein’s, about the fine.)

What concerns us here is that the FCC could have asserted a general principle. It could have said that the internet must remain open, that any machine on the internet must be able to connect to any other machine on the internet, and that management of the internet must be open and collaborative.

The FCC made no such assertion.

In the consent decree , the FCC said it investigated in order to allow customers their choice of VoIP provider: “the Bureau inquired about allegations that Madison River was blocking ports used for VoIP applications, thereby affecting customers’ ability to use VoIP through one or more VoIP service providers.”

Madison River settled, for a mere $15,000, and the FCC was therefore able to avoid spending money investigating Madison River and Madison River avoided potentially high legal expenses: “To avoid the expenditure of additional resources that would be required to further litigate the issues raised in the Investigation, and in consideration for the termination of the Investigation in accordance with the terms of this Consent Decree, Madison River agrees to make a voluntary payment to the United States Treasury, without further protest or recourse to a trial de novo, in the amount of fifteen thousand dollars ($15,000.00) within ten (10) business days after the Effective Date of the Adopting Order”.

Madison River promised not to do it again: “In order to resolve and terminate the Investigation, the Bureau requires, and Madison River agrees, that Madison River shall not block ports used for VoIP applications or otherwise prevent customers from using VoIP applications.”

The FCC could have asserted its right to regulate the three core internet principles. It could have argued that its role is to protect the consumer and the internet. Instead, it argued the narrowest of principles and achieved the narrowest of goals. It asserted the right to police competition among VoIP providers on privately-owned networks.

FCC vs. Comcast

This is the most important net neutrality case in the USA to this date because Comcast fought the FCC and won, fundamentally challenging the FCC’s power to regulate the internet.

DSL Reports reported in August of 2007 that Comcast was using an internet traffic management device from Waterloo, Ontario-based Sandvine to throttle BitTorrent users who were sending more traffic outside of Comcast’s network than they were bringing in. The Sandvine device specifically targeted sharers and did not target downloaders, according to DSL Reports forum members:

“The Sandvine application reads packets that are traversing the network boundary. If the application senses that outbound P2P traffic is higher than a threshold determined by Comcast, Sandvine begins to interrupt P2P protocol sequences that would initiate a new transfer from within the Comcast network to a peer outside of the Comcast network. The interruption is accomplished by sending a perfectly forged TCP packet (correct peer, port, and sequence numbering) with the RST (reset) flag set. This packet is obeyed by the network stack or operating system which drops the connection.”

For internet users, the key phrase here is “perfectly forged TCP packet” because it meant that Comcast was intervening in their use of the internet without telling users. It was choosing which machines users could connect to. It was not being open and transparent in its network management.

In 2008, the FCC said that this behavior was illegal, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) released a neutral tool called Switzerland to help users determine whether their own ISP was doing the same.

Note that the Sandvine device had been on the market for some time. Equipment makers — not just Sandvine — had been developing products that could do this. They had been marketing them openly. Had the FCC been concerned about fundamental internet principles it (or Congress) could have intervened. They chose not to.

In 2010, Comcast won a lawsuit against the FCC in which Comcast argued that the FCC had overstepped its authority.

This was huge news. It threatened the National Broadband Plan. It fundamentally challenged the FCC’s power to regulate the internet. The challenges raised by this case have not been resolved by the FCC, although Google and Verizon are eager to solve them for the FCC, which is an issue we’ll discuss next.

The New York Times calls current FCC policy “the struggle for what we already have.”

“Since that ruling came down in March, the agency has been going down two tracks at the same time. It has been desperately trying to find a way to re-establish jurisdiction over broadband services, while at the same time continuing to push for net neutrality. It has become a very complicated dance.”

The Times thinks that “consumers have come to expect an open Internet, and companies will violate net neutrality at their peril. That is just the way the Internet has evolved,” but such a statement ignores the growing market power of the largest ISPs.

Verizon is a major cell phone company as Verizon Wireless. It provides regular telephone service as Verizon. With Verizon FiOS, it is the largest fiber optic provider in the U.S. and offers television service on its fiber lines.

Comcast is a major cable company. It also is one of the nation’s largest telephone companies with its Digital Phone offering. It competes with Verizon to be the largest ISP in the U.S. Comcast wants to buy NBC.

Commissioner Copps noted in a Washington Post editorial that the FCC could retain authority to regulate the internet if it asserted that the internet is “Title II” (common carrier telecommunications) rather than “Title I”.

He wrote:

This was a predictable outcome of FCC actions during the Bush administration that consciously moved broadband Internet access from Title II, which would have supported the commission’s authority, to a murky place that invited court challenge.

This was a major flip-flop from the historic — and successful — approach of forbidding discrimination on our communications networks. Now is the time to put broadband back under Title II, where it belongs — and under which many smaller companies continue to offer Internet access to the public.

Nor is this debate about regulating the Internet. It’s about whether consumers or a few huge Internet service providers will control consumers’ online experiences.

Today, on OneWebDay, we want to urge the FCC to assert its right to protect the three key principles of the internet, principles that have made it friendly to innovation and competition. We want the FCC to insist that the internet be open, that computers be connectible from end to end without interference, and that internet management be open and transparent — not secret and in the service of the companies who pay for it to be the way it is.

Case: Google and Verizon

In August of this year, Google and Verizon posted a joint proposal for the regulation of the internet.

There were many great responses, but I want to highlight that of Susan Crawford, the founder of OneWebDay. She called her post “Leadership,” highlighting a vacuum at the FCC. She wrote:

I don’t blame them for trying. These are profit-making companies, not regulators and not advocacy groups. I’m sure Google, in particular, is tired of the multi-year slog that has gone into the net neutrality debate – and tired of being made the poster-child for the issue as other major online companies have steadily backed away.

The key takeaway from today’s announcement is that it underscores the urgency of FCC action to ensure that it has jurisdiction to speak to American companies about high-speed Internet access. As someone told me today – snappy line – the agency is being disintermediated.

Funny, but not good for the American economy. These two giants have found a policy vacuum and they have, understandably, filled it. A private deal – even a private deal aimed at suggesting legislation – is not the same thing as acting in the public interest. That’s the FCC’s charge.

The key tradeoff being made here is between the treatment of wireless services, on the one hand, and the treatment of nondiscrimination, on the other. Google gave on wireless, and so there’s no policy suggestion for wireless net neutrality that has been provided by the companies. That’s a huge hole, given the growing popularity of wireless services and the recent suggestion by the Commission that we may not have a competitive wireless marketplace. Verizon gave on nondiscrimination, and so there is a suggestion that paid prioritization of services over the Internet would be presumed unlawful (something that AT&T would not have agreed to).

Both companies left “managed services” (or “other services”) off the table for regulation. That’s a giant, enormous, science-fiction-quality loophole. It means that Verizon could decide what bits reach consumers more quickly; it means they’ll be able to favor particular uses of Internet access for exclusive deals. It’s the exception that swallows the rule, as lawyers like to say. It’s prioritization using another label. There’s a save in there that suggests that the “other service” has to be distinct in scope and purpose from Internet access (something cable would not have agreed to), but that’s a long way from an enforceable standard.

What’s needed now is leadership. Here’s a quote sent to me yesterday – from LBJ to regulators: “Let the venal and the self-seeking and the tawdry and the tainted fear to enter your building.” You need backbone to regulate a giant industry, and this one is too important to our economic, social, and cultural future to ignore.

Susan Crawford is devoting most of her blog time (and, I assume, much of her real world time) to opposing the merger between NBC and Comcast, an issue we can discuss if you’d like to.

Case: AT&T Censors Pearl Jam’s Anti-Bush Lyrics During Live Webcast

How bad could it be? Net neutrality advocates’ worst fears were realized in late 2007 when AT&T censored anti-Bush lyrics in a performance by Pearl Jam. When the band transitioned one of its songs into “the melody from Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall,’ … Eddie Vedder served up a pair of anti-Bush lyrics to the tune. ‘George Bush, leave this world alone,’ he sang. ‘George Bush, find yourself another home.’ ” People at the concert heard the lyrics. People listening in online heard only silence.

The band called for net neutrality. “What happened to us this weekend was a wake-up call, and it’s about something much bigger than the censorship of a rock band.”

As far as I know, the FCC did not interfere or even investigate. Any regulator concerned about core principals would have at least looked into this. FCC Commissioner Copps did state, “nobody should have that power to do that and then be able to exercise … control over the distribution and control over the content too.”

AT&T weaseled out by blaming a contractor that it hired to produce the streaming video.

Censorship around the world

We in the U.S. set the standards for freedom from censorship and right now we’re not doing very well. The internet around the world is becoming more filtered. Nation states are trying to build walls to keep parts of the internet out, and it’s not just repressive regimes.

The United States itself, under George Bush, created the Total Information Awareness system that may have recorded every internet voice call and e-mail sent in or through the USA.

As recently September 10th, the ACLU called on President Obama to disavow the program. He has not done so.

Meanwhile, Google warns that almost every nation is asking that content be taken down. Here is a list of takedown requests. Note that the majority of the takedown requests come not from dictatorships but from the democracies.

Australia plans to go ahead with a futile but intrusive filter. Australia’s communications minister Stephen Conroy says that the filter will protect citizens from child porn. Australia’s opposition says it will only give parents a false sense of security and will slow down the internet.

Perhaps the most famous internet censorship operation is China’s. Google was nearly kicked out of the country but has been allowed to stay for another year after redirecting its China website to Hong Kong. A one-click redirect displeased Chinese authorities, but a redirect requiring two clicks has satisfied them. The censorship involves the government and the nation’s ISPs, according to Human Rights Watch.

Pakistan has blocked YouTube and Facebook over what it calls “sacrilegious images”.

Censorship of the Blackberry:

Nations as diverse as the United Arab Emirates and India have asked Blackberry to set up a server in their country so that all messages could be read by the government. “The BlackBerry, then, offers a way to get information to a server outside a country without having anyone inside that country read it. The key here is the location of the server; a country is generally happier when it has all servers in its own warm jurisdictional embrace,” noted The Economist.

Case: Comcast – NBC Merger

The history of internet regulation is a history of regulators trying — and failing — to catch up with what’s actually happening. It’s like the Sandvine box that was in development for years before the FCC noticed the results and tried to stop it. Susan Crawford appears to think that the most important challenge to the internet today is epitomized by the potential merger of Comcast and NBC.

She argued: Comcast’s market power in distribution currently gives Comcast control over programmer behavior and will allow it to protect the leading sports, business, and entertainment brands it gains from this transaction

Comcast’s current relationships with programmers, enhanced by its pricing and bundling control over key NBCU cable channels and online properties, may allow it to raise the costs of its online and offline distribution rivals

High-speed Internet access prices paid by Americans may get higher

But most importantly: Experience with prior mergers for which FCC exacted conditions demonstrates that DOJ should be involved in enforcement. Examples include failures to enforce fiber commitments in SBC-Pacific Telesis, SBC-SNET, and NYNEX-Bell Atlantic; competition commitments in SBC-Ameritech, Bell Atlantic-GTE (Verizon; and promised cost savings in AT&T-BellSouth.

Here’s a detailed example from Crawford: “Comcast has 61% of the Chicago market; 63% of Philadelphia; 58% of San Francisco; 59% of Miami. This power will be increased by the addition of NBCU content – particularly sports content.”

Many argue that monopoly power and pricing power can be exercised by any company that has at least 40 percent of market. As you can see, Comcast is far beyond that, especially in its home base of Philadelphia.


Defending these abstract principles: openness, end to end architecture, and transparent management, requires that we watch the marketplace with vigilance, as Susan Crawford is doing. Today, on OneWebDay, we celebrate the internet for what it is. This is the age of the internet. But the internet may change, and not for the better. Powerful companies want to control it. Stay informed and stay active.

Comments are closed.