Responding to Felten’s net neutrality paper
Responding to Felten’s net neutrality paper
Responding to Felten’s net neutrality paper

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    Ed Felten has just released a paper entitled “Nuts and Bolts of Network Neutrality” (pdf). It’s a reasonably solid introduction to the subject that should be read, especially for those who do not understand the technical issues. Prof. Felten is to be commended for his thoughtful input on this important matter.

    In the conclusion, Felten argues that the best policy option is to continue the threat of regulation without actually regulating. He notes, “If it is possible to maintain the threat of regulation while leaving the issue unresolved, time will teach us more about what regulation, if any, is needed” (p. 10).

    His paper has gotten a lot of play, especially from those who oppose regulation, so it is important to respond. Ed Felten knows more than most folks (myself included) about networking technologies, but I dare say that current political theory demonstrates that his policy option is quite unrealistic; the chance to act will expire too quickly, and the threat of regulation will have passed.

    In the U.S. political system, most policy topics at most times will be of interest to a small number of policymakers, such as those on a relevant congressional committee (Jones & Baumgartner, 2005, p. 39). House and Senate committees specialize, develop most of the language of topical bills, and oversee the implementation by the relevant administrative agencies–which are even more specialized. Interest groups who care about niche issues can therefore easily locate and lobby the policymakers who most control their fate, providing electoral support (including campaign donations) to helpful committee members. Constituent groups also lobby on behalf of helpful (and against disagreeable) agencies. In most cases, the rest of the legislative and executive branches will pay little attention to this cozy relationship, and a hardened three-way bond of mutual indebtedness will grow over time. This is called an “iron triangle.” (Follow the link for a very useful illustration.) Well-financed interests consistently succeed in currying favors from the other two members of the iron triangle, and poorly financed public interests generally fail.

    Yet this “stability is punctuated with periods of volatile change” (Baumgartner and Jones, 1993, p. 4). One major source of change, they argue, is “an appeal by the disfavored side in a policy subsystem, or those excluded entirely from the arrangement, to broader political processes–Congress, the president, political parties, and public opinion” (Jones & Baumgartner, 2005, p. 5). Coupled with venue shopping, disfavored advocacy coalitions will attempt to reshape the debate over the policy at hand (Baumgartner and Jones, 1993, pp. 25-38). If they succeed on both counts, they can sometimes effect a specific policy change that was impossible when the dominant coalition was able to define the issue from within an iron triangle. Hence, U.S. policymaking is characterized by a series of punctuated equilibriums; rather than moderate stability and incremental change, policies will be very stable for years, even decades, only to be radically reformed during brief windows of widespread attention.

    The fact that Senator Stevens’ speech is now booming down the “series of tubes” illustrates that this issue is hot right now. This has become a major focal point of for-profit companies (Google, Amazon) and major non-profits, tech (EFF [sic, see below], Free Press, CDT, Public Knowledge) and non-tech (Christian Coalition, MoveOn) alike. They have finally punctured through the public consciousness on this issue.

    But this cannot and will not last forever. These companies and groups have other issues to attend to, but telecom and cable can wait all decade. The media will soon stop giving airtime to network neutrality, whatever the outcome. Remember the Clintons’ push for universal health care? The number of uninsured has only risen since 1994, but media and public attention has gone down. Not even life-and-death issues can stay on the brink forever.

    It looks like the telecom bills may stall out this Congress. Pro-neutrality forces probably have enough gas in the tank (resources, media and public attention, sympathetic Congresspersons) for another big push in 2007/08. But if that doesn’t happen?

    Kingdon (1995) cites an interest group analyst who uses the metaphor of the surfer waiting for the next great wave. “You get out there, you have to be ready to go, you have to be ready to paddle. If you’re not ready to paddle when the big wave comes along, you’re not going to ride it in” (p. 165).

    The last big telecom wave crested with the 1996 Act. If the next Act goes through without strong neutrality mandates, the internet will be profoundly different by the time there’s enough public attention to force the issue again–if that day ever returns.

    Even worse, imagine what happens to the online voices that are pushing for net neutrality if they don’t get it. Nonprofit, educational, and citizen groups will all lose some degree of communication power on the two-tiered internet. This will erode our collective ability to make a fuss in any format (whether text, audio, or video). Moving the public to care enough to move undecided members of Congress is hard enough; doing it five or ten years from now, with one arm tied behind our back, might be impossible.

    Prof. Felten has a nice idea. Letting the threat of regulation substitute for the messiness of actual policy would be good, but it won’t last. If we let this moment pass–if we let a big bill get through without strong protections for neutrality–telecom will again become a quiet issue. And quiet issues are either left alone or decided from within the iron triangle.

    (Also at ShoutingLoudly.)

    UPDATE: Out of sheer muscle-memory, I included EFF as being explicitly with us. Thanks to TLF for the correction, and allow me to retract and clarify: EFF’s board members believe that a generally end-to-end network is the best architecture. They are, however, split over the policy issues.

    Tech Liberation Front has already posted two separate responses to my arguments here, and Felten uses one of these as a starting point for his own response. All of this illustrates that there is a reasonably sound debate going on here. I will write a new PK blog post shortly responding to each of these arguments.