Internet Kill-Switch Bill is ill-timed, ill-named, just ill

Easy Button
The kill-switch that doesn't exist (Photo by Craig Dugas on Flickr)

Sen. Lieberman reintroduced his ‘Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010’ this week. The bill has been widely dubbed the Internet Kill-Switch Bill, and its reemergence unintentionally coincided with Egypt shutting off its own Internet connection.  Egypt is back online today, but debate rages anew over whether or not the President should have the power to shutdown the web. What’s being widely ignored is that Lieberman’s bill doesn’t really provide the President with that power. Rather it broadens the power he already has to make the Internet go dark.

Under the Communications Act of 1934 the President has very broad power to shut off any or all wired or radio communications networks in the event of war or even the threat of war. This would include throttling the Internet.  Lieberman’s bill would broaden the definition of threats to explicitly include cyber-threats, But it’s not at all clear this power doesn’t already exist.

Over the last decade the threat of terrorist acts have widely been accepted politically as existential threats to America.  Clearly, a major attack on our communications networks would be considered an act of terror, and the threat of such an attack would allow the President a great deal of latitude to prevent such an attack, including shutting down parts or all of the network.  Lieberman’s proposal does little to change the scope of executive power in such a situation.

However, the bill’s primary purpose is to create a plan that would force the private providers of critical digital networks to come up with ways of managing their traffic in the event that something bad happens.  Is that a good thing?  Yes, in the sense that any competent network should have plans in place to deal with cyber-attacks.  Yet there are already ample incentives for any private provider to have such plans in place. Lieberman’s proposal would legislate what is already considered standard practice.  While the bill doesn’t obviously do much harm, it doesn’t do any obvious good either.  And it does create additional federal bureaucracy, which would seem ill-advised at a time when both sides are looking for ways to cut administrative expenses.

While Lieberman’s bill doesn’t create an Internet Kill-Switch, the specter of Obama having a big red button on his desk that would sever the web looms large in the minds of conservatives and liberals alike.  Yet this nervousness is ill-founded.  Such a button does not exist.  The mechanisms by which the government would shut off the Internet would be that it would have to coerce or demand the cooperation of private telecommunications providers to cut off their external network connections. The sheer number of companies managing such extra-national networks makes such a prospect considerably larger than Mubarak’s turn down of the three Egyptian ISPs.  It would take days to weeks for the government to effectively kill the American Internet, if it was possible at all—and more than enough time for any particular cyber-attack to do its damage.  Further, the prospect of a President getting widespread ISP cooperation to execute an Egypt-style quelling of popular dissent is even more remote.   The “kill-switch” as a defensive measure is neither practical or effective.

If people are truly concerned about the Internet remaining a free and open means of communication for everyone, they should be supporting true Net Neutrality legislation, not fretting about mythical kill-switches.

What you likely don’t know about Net Neutrality

Budding Web Surfer
Net Neutrality: keeping the web free for the next generation (Photo by Ilya Haykinson on Flickr)

A recent Rasmussen poll showed that a mere 20% of us are following the debate on Net Neutrality.  Meanwhile 54% are opposed to the FCC making any Net Neutrality regulations, while 21% were in favor.  A likely explanation is that most Americans don’t really understand what Net Neutrality is.

The FCC recently approved a new slate of so-called Net Neutrality rules.  The new rules ensconced a few tenets of Net Neutrality, but also propped open the door for companies to engage in some very non net neutral business models.  The result being that almost everyone wound up unsatisfied by the result.  Still, the vote came down strictly along party lines which bolstered the perception that Net Neutrality is a liberal vs. conservative issue.  Net Neutrality is often positioned as a government takeover or government regulation of the Internet.  It’s not either of those things, nor is it particularly political in a left vs. right sense.  But those perceptions are driving public opinion nonetheless.

The question is, what is Net Neutrality, independent of any specific proposed policy or rules?  At its core, Net Neutrality is simply freedom of the Internet.  It is a belief that Internet network access is a public resource that should not favor any content over any other.  That as a user of the Internet, you should be entitled to access any site or service with the same pricing and speed from the provider of that connection.

This means that your Internet Service Provider (ISP) cannot charge you more for using Yahoo! than Google.  It cannot provide speedy access to Netflix while throttling Hulu.  It cannot make it prohibitively expensive to do online banking with Citibank, while providing bargains for banking with Chase.  It cannot prohibit you from accessing The Drudge Report because it doesn’t like its political views.  As far as the network is concerned, traffic is traffic, and no preferential treatment shall be given.

The talk of government regulation of the Internet is not really accurate.  It sounds as if the government would be regulating content.  Instead, Net Neutrality proposes that the government regulate ISPs to insure they do not regulate the content of the Internet.  Net Neutrality is about insuring freedom for consumers and making sure ISPs don’t take that away.

Analogies have been made to the power company charging you more to run a TV than a washing machine, or giving you a discount for running Maytag appliances.  Rather, you pay for the kWHs you use, rather than whether you burn them using your PS/3 or your dishwasher.   Net Neutrality is simply ensuring that same agnosticism applies to your ISP.

In fairness, most ISPs have not yet tried to implement service structures that would not be net neutral.  However, there have been a few trial balloons floated, so there is justifiable reason for consumers to be concerned.  This is the primary motivation for trying to get Net Neutrality rules into effect now, before ISPs change to content biased business models.  It wil be much more difficult and much more disruptive to companies to force them to change after the fact rather than putting rules in place up front.

Viewed another way, Net Neutrality is like the Second Amendment, albeit for Internet rights rather than gun rights.  Your right to access the Internet content of your choice shall not be infringed.  This sort of basic freedom should appeal to card-carrying ACLU members as much as Tea Partiers.

So why does anyone oppose Net Neutrality?  Profit.  Being an ISP is a profitable business.  Demand is increasing while costs are decreasing, meaning that profit margins continue to rise.  A fast Internet connection is becoming a near must-have for households.  It’s like a car or a TV.  Most families would not chose to live without it.  So while ISPs are making good money with today’s net neutral business models, they fully recognize there are opportunities to make even more money by shifting to less content neutral pricing.

But wait, shouldn’t the free market sort all this out?  As a consumer, why would you opt for a restrictive ISP over a more open one?  The reason being that the vast majority of America lacks any serious market competition in the ISP space.  Only 4% of the market is served by 3 or more ISPs, while 78% is served by 2 ISPs.  If free markets were operating in the ISP space, you would not expect America to rank 28th in global speed of Internet connections while having comparatively more expensive ISP service.   The markets should have sorted that out by now as well.

The bottom line being that government rules enforcing that ISPs honor Net Neutrality wouldn’t be required if instead government required that ISPs unbundle their services and sell wholesale network access to small ISPs such that true competition existed in the market.  Either method works, and many other countries have successfully implemented the unbundling regulations.  However, American ISPs are understandably opposed to either option, and both options require some level of government intervention.  The alternative is that we simply have to trust that ISPs will be good citizens and not place profit motives over the interests of their customers—and history suggests that the customers rarely end up on the good end of that bargain.

Net Neutrality is not about restricting the Internet or your ability to post or access content on it.  On the contrary, its only goal is to ensure your continued ability to surf without restrictions or penalties.  While some government rules do impose constraints, Net Neutrality is one of those that promotes and ensures freedom.  What could be more American than that?

USPS vs. Internet: pick a side

USPS v Internet
Which is the more vital part of U.S. infrastructure? (created by Tim)

The venerable U.S. Postal Service announced last Friday that it lost $8.5 billion in the fiscal year that ended in September.  It is on pace to be completely broke by the end of 2011.  It is seeking freedom from onerous requirements that mandate Congressional approval for changes to delivery schedules and routes, closing post offices, and setting rates.

Meanwhile, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), who is set to lead the House committee overseeing postal affairs, is determined to assure the USPS doesn’t require a taxpayer bailout, but is not supportive of helping it either.  Instead he’s urging the post office to consider further cost cuts so that it lives within its revenue.  This leaves the USPS in a bind no private company would have to endure.  The USPS can’t raise its rates, and it can’t cut back its service offerings either.  It doesn’t even have the right to go out of business.

A combination of two outside forces have dealt the USPS dramatic blows to its business model.  Delivery companies like FedEx and UPS together with the adoption of the Internet have significantly eroded the need for and the value provided by the USPS.  While it was an essential and effective part of our national infrastructure at one time, those days are largely gone.

Given the current groundswell of grassroots enthusiasm for private businesses being able to do things more efficiently than the government, it’s inexplicable why Congress is clinging to this anachronistic heavily federally regulated and backed delivery system.

It’s conceivable the argument could be offered that the postal service is a vital part of our communications infrastructure and in our national interest to assure it keeps running.  But if that’s true, it would be impossible to then argue that the Internet should remain under the auspices of private companies, and remain unregulated.

At its core, this is an ideology issue.  Either the government has an obligation over our communications infrastructure or it doesn’t.  If it does, then stop worrying about telephone companies and the post office and pay attention to wireless carriers and Internet service providers.  That is unarguably the core of our national communications network today.  If the government has no such obligation, then set the USPS free.  Let it live or die as a for profit company, or be bought out by one of its competitors.  That is the nature of capitalism.

Republicans are currently on both sides of this issue.  They want the post office alive and well and under the government’s thumb, yet they oppose regulation or nationalization of  ISPs and wireless carriers.  Points which are ideologically at odds with each other.  It’s time to pick a side.