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Mozilla proposes a middle way in the net neutrality debate

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By Nathan Willis
May 14, 2014

The concept of net neutrality has been a hot topic in recent weeks, following on the heels of statements by US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler that have been widely interpreted as hostile to net neutrality. Many tech-industry players came out against Wheeler's statements, and called instead for the FCC to reclassify Internet service as a commodity that would be protected against discriminatory prioritization schemes and other deals. But Mozilla proposed its own solution—one that involves a re-examination of Internet service itself, but that might have advantages over the more broadly advocated reclassification proposal. The essence of Mozilla's proposal is recognition that Internet service providers (ISPs) have a service relationship not just with their subscribers and their networking peers, but with third-party, Internet-delivered businesses as well.

At the heart of the current net-neutrality debate is the concern that "last mile" ISPs—that is, those who sell connectivity directly to residential subscribers—will be allowed to slow down traffic from some Internet companies (such as Netflix) unless those companies agree to pay the ISP a "fast lane" access fee. Noteworthy in this scenario is that Netflix (or another Internet company) does not operate the network connecting its facilities to its customers. The ISP is connected to other networking providers—with whom it does have business arrangements for backbone service or peering connectivity—but it routes the traffic originating from Netflix (and other sites or services) to ISP subscribers simply because that traffic comes over the wire from the neighboring network. Netflix pays for the connectivity and bandwidth its servers require on its side, which may be many network operators removed from the subscriber's ISP.

The issue, then, is that in this scenario, the last-mile ISP is interfering with some traffic and demanding extra fees to deliver it to subscribers, even though those subscribers and Netflix are already paying for the bandwidth that is actually consumed. These additional fees could be used by the ISP to make Netflix a more expensive service than an alternative (for example, DVR-ready cable TV programming also offered by the ISP). And the fee structure could be used to make it more expensive for any new service to start up and compete with the services already getting fast-lane treatment. For example, a new Netflix-like competitor, whose total bit-rate (and, thus, video quality) would always be lower than Netflix's simply because the last-mile ISP throttles that last segment of the network connection for the new company.

The fact that such business arrangements are even possible stems from the way the FCC legally regulates different communications services according to different sets of rules. ISPs have historically been classified as "information services" under the Telecommunications Act of 1996; while there are comparatively few regulations that address what "information service" providers can and cannot do, there are regulations that restrict what "telecommunications services" (such as phone networks) can do, particularly when it comes to discriminating on the basis of content. In 2010, the FCC laid out a set of network-neutrality rules in its Open Internet Order, but in January 2014 the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the FCC did not have the authority to impose many of those rules on ISPs because ISPs are not currently classified as "telecommunications services."

Thus, when word got out in mid-April about Wheeler's proposed new rules, which would allow "commercially reasonable" fast-lane deals, most of the response from net-neutrality advocates focused on convincing the FCC to reclassify ISPs from "information services" to "telecommunications services." That change would essentially clear the way for the Open Internet Order of 2010 to come back in full force.

Of course, one would certainly expect the ISPs to fight against such a reclassification as fiercely as their budgets would allow, since they stand to miss out on lots of revenue they would like to collect. But what makes Mozilla's proposal to the FCC different is that it does not hinge on the information-to-telecommunications reclassification.

Instead, Mozilla's proposal (which is available in full as a PDF document) argues that the current definition of what an ISP does is insufficient. The historical viewpoint has been that an ISP has two classes of business relationships: one with its subscribers, and one with the other network providers it is connected to (peers or backbone networks). Mozilla argues that there is in reality a third business relationship: one between the ISP and remote content providers (i.e., Netflix, Google, and any other service that is offered to the public through the Internet). The ISP's relationship to the subscriber could still be classified as an "information service," the argument goes, but it is offering a "telecommunications service" to the remote businesses:

[R]emote delivery services provided by last-mile network operators to arms-length edge hosts, allowing them to communicate with that operator’s subscribers, represent a distinct legal category of services from user-facing Internet access services and from interconnection and peering.

Re-evaluating the nature of the ISP business is not a small step, of course. Mozilla argues that the prior viewpoint, where subscribers and peering networks are the only relationships involved, is a relic of the earliest days of the Internet, when it was composed of multiple standalone networks, and ISPs routed traffic from (say) the edge of MIT's network to the edge of Stanford's network. Commercial Internet services changed that equation fundamentally:

This history is past, and gone with it is the assumption that it is sufficient to view a last-mile network operator as having only two duties, to interconnection/peering partners and to end users. Now, technology enables fine-grained network management creating potential commercial relationships with remote, arms length endpoints. Therefore, a last-mile operator must be viewed as having a separate duty with respect to remote endpoints, in addition to its duties to end users and interconnection/peering partners. Privity in network traffic management has been changed, fundamentally, through deep-packet inspection and other advanced network management technologies. And it is that change that the Commission must address.

No doubt, the uses of the Internet have evolved considerably since the early 1990s, but that reasoning alone would not likely be sufficient to make the FCC adopt a substantially different policy. Consequently, much of the proposal is devoted to showing that providing access to "remote delivery services" (which is the term used in the proposal for Internet businesses in the abstract) meet the specific definition of "telecommunications service" already set out by FCC rules and the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Specifically, the proposal says, telecommunications services "must include a 'transmission'; it must be offered 'directly to the public'; and it must not include, or must be separated from, any additional information services." Internet traffic is certainly transmitted, the proposal says, and Internet businesses certainly offer their services directly to the public (regardless of how the public accesses the Internet).

Whether or not Internet businesses "integrate" with other information services is not as straightforward, but the proposal argues that the FCC has historically stated in the past that the "information service" component of the ISP business referred to particular features, "specifically domain name resolution, email services, hosting services, and other featured services." The remote services under consideration (like Netflix) do not handle these duties.

The final aspect of Mozilla's proposed change is that, by not requiring the reclassification of ISPs as telecommunications services, its proposal would allow the FCC to address net neutrality without overturning the agency's regulatory precedents and thus triggering the re-examination of the existing regulations and policies that govern ISPs. That is a practical argument, but for a government agency, not throwing decades of existing regulation into limbo is probably an appealing idea.

On May 6, the Mozilla blog post was updated to clarify a few questions that had circulated in the wake of the proposal's publication. For example, the proposed change would not place ISPs' peering and interconnection business under the "telecommunications service" banner. ISPs would still be permitted to create "fast lane" arrangements not in the "last mile," so content-delivery networks and various quality-of-service deals between providers would still be permitted. The proposed change would also not introduce any FCC regulation over Internet businesses themselves; it would instead protect them from unfair actions by ISPs.

Mozilla has also set up a wiki page to track the progress of its proposal. It is hard to say what the future holds, though. Interesting though the proposal may be, there is scant evidence available suggesting that it has swayed the FCC. The FCC is slated to vote on its new rules on May 15. For his part, Wheeler has already responded to the public backlash, indicating that the wording of the rules put forward to the FCC will see some sort of revision from what was disclosed in April. In particular, reports are that the revised rules would impose an outright ban on "fast lane" deals that prioritize content produced by an ISP's subsidiary.

The specifics, however, have yet to be seen. Moreover, whatever rules the FCC votes on—and however that vote turns out—recent events have shown that opponents of net neutrality will take the FCC to court if they dislike the outcome. At that point, many rulings, appeals, and petitions will surely follow, so it could be years before anything concrete is decided, much less put into action.

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Mozilla proposes a middle way in the net neutrality debate

Posted May 15, 2014 3:28 UTC (Thu) by dlang (subscriber, #313) [Link]

The problem I have with the Mozilla proposal is that it requires classifying Internet connections into Consumer or Server categories.

This is something ISPs would love to do, because they can then charge far more for the Server category and would have complete justification to block all home servers to enforce it.

some of them are trying hard to do this now, but the Mozilla proposal would encode this categorization into law

I'd much rather see there be an option for an ISP to either get common carrier status, in which case they can make no discrimination between traffic sources on their network, but are also shielded from all liability around the traffic on their network, or remain an Information Service where they can control what's on their network, but then are liable for that traffic.

I don't think it would take very many lawsuits to convince the ISPs that they were far better off being common carriers under those rules.

Right now, the ISPs want to have it both ways, they want common-carrier like protection when it's convenient for them, but not have to follow the restrictions on common carriers.

Mozilla proposes a middle way in the net neutrality debate

Posted May 15, 2014 8:09 UTC (Thu) by dgm (subscriber, #49227) [Link]


Besides, the Mozilla proposal looks to me like a hack. A legal one, but still a hack. Experience shows that hacks are great for one-off stopgap measures, but make things fragile and complicated long term.

And regarding how times have changed: we should stop thinking that what connects to the "last mile" ISP is a PC. My home, for example, is a complete (and sometimes complex) network, not unlike what the MIT network of old would have been like.

Mozilla proposes a middle way in the net neutrality debate

Posted May 29, 2014 15:07 UTC (Thu) by gerv (subscriber, #3376) [Link]

Your comment isn't accurate, because it doesn't reflect how the local/remote service distinction is being drawn. If you're a local
customer, whether you're a consumer or a server operator, you're still a local subscriber.

But there are two clearer reasons it's not quite right: one, the idea of our proposal is that the remote edge service connections would be zero-price (i.e. the ISP is prohibited from charging the remote edge provider for termination, prioritization, etc); and two, current ISP practices already have 'consumer' and 'business' grade services, as one commenter below noted, and technically 'consumer' grade services often prohibit the operation of servers anyway, so there's nothing stopping this bad practice from emerging as-is.

This is a great article overall, by the way. It shows a solid understanding of the proposal.

Gerv (chanelling Chris Riley, proposal author)

Mozilla proposes a middle way in the net neutrality debate

Posted May 16, 2014 18:23 UTC (Fri) by mstone_ (subscriber, #66309) [Link]

The root of this problem boils down to 1) the ISPs want to be able to demand more money from people who aren't even their customers and 2) the ISPs lie about their provisioning--they want to stomp on bandwidth hogs without admitting that they're effectively metering service. All I want from my ISP is packet routing. I don't want them to "manage" my traffic and decide which of my traffic is important--I can handle that fine. If they need to charge me more to cover the cost, fine: just be up front about what the costs are. If the network is underprovisioned, charge rates that will either cover more provisioning or make people use less bandwidth. But don't pick winners and losers and penalize my bandwidth consumption because I'm using a "bad" service and allow my neighbor to consume the same bandwidth because it's a "good" service. Really, what we need in this country is to have the last mile as a public utility, and let people choose from multiple ISPs for actual internet connectivity. If I want a high LOS, let me pay for that. If my neighbor wants a cut-rate best effort service, let him pay for that. It makes no sense at all for my connections to certain sites to be degraded because a bunch of my neighbors use netflix and my ISP is trying to squeeze them for more money. (And don't believe anything that says that Verizon's fight with Netflix only affected Netflix--a lot of sites got caught in the crossfire.)

Mozilla proposes a middle way in the net neutrality debate

Posted May 17, 2014 21:30 UTC (Sat) by giraffedata (subscriber, #1954) [Link]

1) the ISPs want to be able to demand more money from people who aren't even their customers

I would word that, "The ISPs want to be able to offer services to a new class of customer - people who are not connected directly to the ISP's network."

The rest of your wish list for ISP service sounds to me to be right in line with the ISPs' agenda. They don't want to make judgment calls on which packets are more worthy of the ISP's bandwidth or investment in additional bandwidth. They want to leave that entirely up to the sender and receiver of the packet and sell bandwidth to the highest bidder.

There are apparently laws in place that frustrate that, causing ISPs to do things like decline to install equipment even though the world would get more value out of the equipment than it would cost.

These laws even drive some ISPs to do dishonest things to try to approximate what a free market would give us.

Mozilla proposes a middle way in the net neutrality debate

Posted May 18, 2014 0:45 UTC (Sun) by dlang (subscriber, #313) [Link]

I very much disagree with your view on this.

There are no laws preventing ISPs from installing equipment to improve the performance their customers get when talking to the rest of the Internet.

What is this new clas of service that you think they are wanting to offer to people who aren't connected to them?

how would this service differ from the results you would get if they simply provisioning their network so that it can handle the requests that their existing customer's are making and paying for?

If you haven't read it, it's worth reading this post by one of the backbone providers

Mozilla proposes a middle way in the net neutrality debate

Posted May 18, 2014 4:00 UTC (Sun) by giraffedata (subscriber, #1954) [Link]

Reading that post tells me I got pretty confused with all the changing laws, proposals, and everything. I thought people were saying Netflix was prohibited from buying extra time on Comcast's network, and Comcast didn't want to invest in more network capacity that would be filled up with Netflix traffic for no compensation. There are reasons of consumer psychology that Comcast might be able to get more money from the Netflix end than from the Netflix viewer end.

The post claims that the investment to increase the network capacity is virtually nothing and can be recaptured from the viewers. If so, it would appear that the reason that Comcast and Netflix customers are suffering is not bad regulation as I thought, but what Level 3 says: a classic monopolistic buyer/seller standoff.

What is this new class of service that you think they [ISPs] are wanting to offer to people who aren't connected to them?

The service of delivering the customer's packets to the people who are connected to the ISP (with certain performance). It would appear that as of now people in the US are allowed to buy and sell that, but I'm definitely seeing proposals to outlaw that.

Mozilla proposes a middle way in the net neutrality debate

Posted May 18, 2014 6:24 UTC (Sun) by dlang (subscriber, #313) [Link]

As far as costs go, a blade for a Cisco switch is in the range of 5-10 thousand dollars for ~ 40Gb of connection (4x 10G ports)

it's not nothing, but in the overall costs of running an ISP, it's lost in the noise. definitely not something worth charging millions for.

> The service of delivering the customer's packets to the people who are connected to the ISP (with certain performance).

The thing is, the customer is already paying the ISP to deliver packets to them at a given performance.

how would you like to try and figure out every ISP in the world and what you should pay them to get your packets delivered to their customers?

Companies pay their ISP, and indirectly pay any peering fees that that ISP needs to pay, but beyond that they shouldn't need to pay more.

Now, it can be in the interest of the company to cut down on the distance that the data needs to travel to get to the customer, and they can do that by hosting servers closer to the customers (inside the ISPs network), that's valid and allowed today. But companies will only do that if it's worth it to them (either latency is really important, or the cost of hosting the content closer to the user is less than sending it the distance saved), which isn't going to be the high prices the huge ISPs want to charge.

The ISPs can somewhat get away with "if you want to reach our customers, you have to play ball with us", but only because those customers don't have a choice to go elsewhere.

I don't see any proposals to outlaw the ability to host content closer to the customers. The only thing that people are trying to outlaw is the practice of charging both ends of the connection

That is
customer <-> ISP A <-> ISP B <-> content customer wants
where ISP A wants to charge the content provider as well as the customer

It would still remain perfectly legal for the company providing the content to do

customer <-> ISP A <-> content servers
cutting ISP B out of the loop entirely

Mozilla proposes a middle way in the net neutrality debate

Posted May 19, 2014 17:12 UTC (Mon) by giraffedata (subscriber, #1954) [Link]

The thing is, the customer is already paying the ISP to deliver packets to them at a given performance.

Clearly, the customer isn't. ISPs make no promises of performance across the Internet or between the customer and the next peer network. I don't even think they make promises of performance on the first hop from the customer's house. The whole question here is should that transport be paid for by the receiving customer or not. Just stating that the receiving customer does pay for it begs the question.

Mozilla proposes a middle way in the net neutrality debate

Posted May 19, 2014 20:01 UTC (Mon) by raven667 (subscriber, #5198) [Link]

It also happens to be a true summation, ISPs budget based on income from customer subscriptions, anything they are getting paid to not put major content into a slow lane is pure profit and does not represent capital or operational expense. Most of the money the telecoms are putting into lobbying about this issue is to muddy and confuse this point, existing customer subscriptions already pay for the capital, operational expense and a very large profit margin, for the telecom providers making these claims. If you heard different elsewhere then that is probably 100% pure BS.

It's hard to have any real conversations with people about topics of consequence when so much effort is put into disinformation campaigns.

Mozilla proposes a middle way in the net neutrality debate

Posted May 19, 2014 20:09 UTC (Mon) by dlang (subscriber, #313) [Link]

Ok, they performance they promise is "up to X" in most cases (my ISP guarantees that through their network and peering I will have 4Mb minimum, up to 25Mb but most include no minimums)

But this isn't the heyday of AOL and Prodigy where you paid to get to their service, and incidentally also got some connection to the Internet. Today customers are paying their ISP to get them to the Internet, Youtube, Flikr, Netflix, etc. If the ISP doesn't have a responsibility to provide communication to those services in exchange for what the customer is paying for, what is the ISP providing?

Mozilla proposes a middle way in the net neutrality debate

Posted May 20, 2014 12:35 UTC (Tue) by mstone_ (subscriber, #66309) [Link]

Exactly--the ISPs provide no guarantees of anything, and also want more profit. Nice work if you can get it. If they weren't government-backed monopolies, I don't think many customers would voluntarily choose those terms.

Mozilla proposes a middle way in the net neutrality debate

Posted May 19, 2014 11:33 UTC (Mon) by mstone_ (subscriber, #66309) [Link]

There is no way for each end of every connection to give money to both ISPs on a per-transaction basis. What will happen is that certain deep-pocketed endpoints will be hit up for money, small-scale/private connections will be penalized, and the ISPs will continue to try to shut down high-bandwidth connections on dubious pretenses (e.g., "we don't allow P2P") because they under-provision and don't want to stop claiming that they have unlimited high-speed connections.

Again, all I want my ISP to do is establish peering and route my packets. They can charge me based on the quality of the peering. They have no business looking in my packets or trying to charge the person I'm exchanging packets with--the other end is already paying their ISP.

Mozilla proposes a middle way in the net neutrality debate

Posted May 19, 2014 12:21 UTC (Mon) by james (subscriber, #1325) [Link]

All I want from my ISP is packet routing. I don't want them to "manage" my traffic and decide which of my traffic is important--I can handle that fine.
This is what worries me about the net neutrality debate: providing traffic shaping and QoS as a service is an obvious thing for ISPs to do. A connection where VoIP gets priority, and large transfers and BitTorrent get only the bandwidth that nothing else wants, is likely to feel much more reliable and usable. It's also something that's not possible to do with current domestic routers when the traffic might be coming from multiple closed-source devices.

I'm British, so the details of American net regulation don't really affect me, unless they deter network equipment manufacturers from making equipment that can do things like this.

Mozilla proposes a middle way in the net neutrality debate

Posted May 19, 2014 12:35 UTC (Mon) by mstone_ (subscriber, #66309) [Link]

It'll feel much more usable to the guy doing a small amount of VOIP and lousy to the guy who mostly does bittorrent. I don't want my ISP deciding that some other customer's traffic is more important than mine, I just want them to route according to what I'm paying. I wouldn't mind a service tier where I could indicate that I want a higher LoS for particular packets, but I want that to be my decision based on my traffic and what I want to spend; I don't want my ISP picking winners and losers and deciding that some people's traffic is just more important than others (and giving some traffic a free benefit while others paying the same rate get penalized).

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