What the $#@! is the “Public” Internet

So here I am, at one of these DC discussion fests between “stakeholders” on “network neutrality.” Net neutrality is what we talk about post Brand X . It means the provider can’t mess with the packets (other than to screen malware or engage in network management). Needless to say, the incumbent wireline providers are not happy with this thought, while all the time proclaiming they will never, ever mess with content.

So what incumbents float instead is the concept of providing “enhanced service” to those with content who will pay extra to be given “priority” to the broadband provider’s subscribers. (“Hey, nice packets you got there. Be a shame if anything . . . happened to them on the way to the customer. But good news. We’re here to offer you a ‘premium’ service that gaurantees you speedy delivery! I suppose I shouldn’t mention this, but your competitor has already signed up . . .”)

This is being justified, in part, as offering premium service on the “private internet” as opposed to the “public interent.”

What the #$@! is a “public internet?” Unless there is some remnant of the NSF backbone out there, or we’re talking about the government funded root servers, there is no such thing as a “public” internet and never was. “The Internet” (back when everyone always used to capitalize it) is a “network of networks” which, since the mid-1990s, have been private networks.

So why are wireline incumbents pushing the “public internet” meme? See below . . .

It’s worth it now and then to go back to basics. It clears away the rhetorical garbage. The “internet” has always been a “network of networks,” with just about all of them owned by someone. Yes, I suppose some connections are actually “public” in the sense of “paid for with public money.” The library has “public internet” in that your tax money helps pay for it and it is maintained by a public institution. But any content you can reach is private content, delivered by private networks. You’ve paid your ISP to send a query to the service that John Sundman uses to host wetmachine.com. That ISP hands off the traffic to someone it pays to transmit the bits, which goes to the right machine (also privately owned) and serves up the content (privately owned, in this case by me), and we run the process in reverse. But it may not run exactly in reverse, because the private financial agreements between carriers may dictate a different return path.

In fact, your access to this content is not “public.” Yes, John makes it generally available and I work under those conditions. But the law allows me to set all sorts of conditions for access to this content on the theoretically “public” internet. And, absent regulation requiring net neutrality or common carraige, nothing requires your ISP to deliver it. If Comcast decides I am evil and blocks Wetmachine, they can do it (since Brand X). Whether Comcast actually wants to block me, and what would hapen to them in the marketplace if they did, is a different question and a hotly debated one.

So “the internet” does not make anything “public.” What the “internet” has done is to provide a set of protocols and common arrangements that make it easy for private actors to cooperate (lets forget about the government content providers as trivial). Sometimes this doesn’t work out, as when Level Three and Cogent stopped peering, but the strength of “the internet”has been that it makes it easy for people who want to cooperate, and find value in cooperating, to cooperate. So folks had problems, but generally worked them out.

(As a side note, folks no longer understand what a revolution it was to have traffic pass through private networks using only “best efforts” and no government managed rates or QoS. It’s why the large telecom carriers were so slow to adopt TCP/IP. They didn’t think it could ever be good enough for “real” business.)

So why try to create this distinction between some theoretical “public” internet (which translates to any content or service that isn’t generated by the incumbent wireline provider or buying “premium” service) and the “private” internet? Marketing. Now that Brand X has deregulated broadband providers, regulators and legislators face the real prospect that, at least in the short term, the wireline incumbents can mess with content, block competing voice over IP, or, as AT&T CEO Whiteacre threatened to do, start charging internet application or content providers for access to customers.

Now that’s a problem, because lots of people use the Internet. More than use it, rely on it. When cable leveraged its control over customers to control the development of cable programming pre-1992 Cable Act, that shafted a few networks to be and was generally detrimental to democracy by limiting access to diverse views and diverse sources of news. That was bad. But the ability to manipulate broadband internet access, either at the consumer end or the business end, has broad impacts on our economy in the same way manipulation of electric energy or petroleum protentially has broad impacts. Increases in the cost of doing business on the internet that flow solely from the ability to exploit market power impose an added cost to the economy as a whole, and jeopardize applications that may be valuable, but which are not monetizable (like reading this blog).

So the incumbent wireline providers have to reassure regulators that they will not harm “the Internet” while still retaining flexibility to exploit market power. Or, as the incumbents like to say, “innovate and offer advanced services to provide a proper return on investment.”

So now we have the incumbents pushing this “public internet” v. “private internet” meme, where “public internet” means everything as it is now, and “private internet” means “leveraging our captive customer base.” Particularly in the current administration, the word “private” as opposed to “public” has huge resonances. After all, in the “ownership society,” shouldn’t the “private owner” be allowed to exploit its property as long as it doesn’t damage the “public” internet?

You can take the position that the private network owner can do what it wants, and if you don’t like the service on those terms do without. From a public policy perspective, I think that has awful results. But as an ideological position, I can’t argue with it any more than other folks can convince me of the superiority of worship of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

But marketing annoys me. This is merely an attempt to confuse the general accessibility of content now by calling it “public internet”, as if that makes conduct that would otherwise be “bad” o.k., because the “bad” conduct takes place in the “private” internet. Or, as we used to call it, on the incumbent’s network.

Stay tuned . . .

One Comment

  1. Illuminating as usual, Harold.

    I especially like the parts where you mention me by name, because it makes me feel virtuous.

    You are right, this meme-spreading is ominous. It reminds me of how the military drops pamphlets warning the locals to surrender or get out before the bombardment & invasion begin. We had best keep our powder dry. . .

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