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No Free Lunches Here Either
Published on August 15, 2010 By Phil Osborn In The Media

One of the problems with net neutrality is that the hogs rule.  Whether it's bandwidth or artificially cheap bread in the Soviet Union, where people would sell their places in line or hire themselves out as line-sitters and then load up wheelbarrows full of bread priced way below cost to feed their hogs or make kitchen vodka, "free lunches" generate lines that ultimately offset the near-zero price with a new access cost, generally about what the "free lunch" would have cost originally up front.  Those people who are huge freeriding downloaders are of course in favor of legislation to enforce net neutrality. 

Here at the library, a few people are always watching movies somehow at full frames per sec., while the rest of us spend a lot of time twiddling our thumbs, waiting for text or pdf pages to load.  There is no solution to this within the framework of "net neutrality."  Increasing the bandwidth just tempts the hogs into downloading five videos instead of one.

See: http://philosborn.joeuser.com/article/8010
Another problem is the lack of incentives to improve things.  Consider how lousy all the browsers are.  Progress essentially stopped when MicroSoft started giving Explorer away, way back in the '90's.  Notice how there is apparently no way to stop the browser from interrupting what you are doing on one window as some remote source decides it's time to grab the mouse focus for an entirely different window.  How utterly stupid! 

How many times have you finished typing something, hit RETURN, only to realize that you just okayed something on some other requester that just popped up, or struggled to type in an address as the other window kept seizing the mouse focus.

But with a free browser, who do you complain to?  And, like all the "private schools," which really really should be called public, as that's who they sell to, who copycat the "public" (state) schools, just improving around the edges, Explorer has stymied advances in all the other browsers.  If it's not Explorer compatible, then who can practically use it?  And, yes, of course IE is losing ground to better products, finally, but look how long it took, and how little difference from the IE standard the competing browsers actually provide.

As a professional web designer, I have been dealing with the actual incompatibilities between browsers on a daily basis of late.  Where I work, for a Chinese/Taiwanese owned American company, for the past several years I, the web designer and maintainer of a huge 1,000+ page multilingual website, all hand-coded, have been restricted from any access to the actual web.  Out of massive endemic paranoia, they gave everyone else in the company web access, except me.  Many times I pointed out that I needed at the very least, copies of the latest browsers to ensure that pages worked properly.

However, Management, which consists of a guy who got to his position by being reportedly the only employee not to walk out back in the '80's and the company owner's son, who knows that he could never have gotten to his position on his own, sneers at attempts by me or other mere employees, to actually do our  jobs.  And since they pay very little, then the work must not be worth much, which justifies the sneers, insults, screaming in the face, etc.  (Recently the company owners son decided to clean up my area by throwing out most of my web reference books.  Now I have a place to put my jacket and motorcycle helmet.)

However, a few days ago, the company owner's son discovered that certain pages were not showing up correctly in FireFox.  After unsuccessfully trying to blame me for his own policy, he actually stepped out of character and, late at night, without notifying me, of course, installed copies of Safari, FireFox, and Opera, but not Google's Chrome, which I'm expecting to take off bigtime as Google/Verizon build the cloud.  Of course, I had specifically requested Chrome, so naturally it went the way of every single other request to him (such as for a working mouse - I eventually brought in my own) over the past ten years.  And, somehow the current versions of several important projects I was working on got trashed, as he apparently shut the system down without saving after I had left for the night.  So it goes.

Anyway, that, however, led to my attempting to load various web pages into the other browsers. 

OOPS!!!  The company home page showed up radically different (and not for the better) on all three alternate browsers.  And the differences were different from browser to browser.

It seems that only IE is still supporting a lot of the "deprecated" html tags that have been a mainstay of my work.  Someone who had web access while doing design would of course be hit with these anomalies piecemeal over years and would get on webmaster sites and find workarounds where possible.  However, I am now in the position of playing catch-up, trying to deduce why Opera is still putting huge spaces between lines on the company home page even after I resolved the problem with FireFox and Safari, and ten thousand other instances to come, I'm sure. 

It's not that I don't understand CSS, either.  It's just that in my experience, the worst browser incompatibilities are associated with Cascading Styles, so I've used it somewhat sparingly.  The company owner's son is a fanatic about fine positioning, however, and that meant all kinds of innovative kludges to make every column line up perfectly on a stretchable page - in IE.  Suddenly, many of those kludges are going to break, and there may not be a fix that meets his specs.  Like the blissful slow-cooked frog, most web designers have seen the crap oozing up slowly for that time period, but very few have been in my position of seeing it all at once, in my face.

(Now I'm curious what modern web design really is.  Having spent the equivalent of an internet century frozen in about 2002, what new techniques have proven their worth?  I know about AJAX, as my access was terminated right about when it was taking off.  So I never learned to use it.  Instead of AJAX, I learned to create pages that thoroughly abused JavaScript, plugging in Document.Write scripts all over the place.  I mean, if all you have is a hammer...  My pages DO load incredibly fast, though, so I must be doing something right.  And my site search engine is faster and more accurate than anyone else's that I've seen.  And the site I do still has astronomically high rankings, measured by how many keywords show up on the first page with Google.  Wonder what I could have done if I'd had access to the web, huh?)

Which brings me back to the subject at hand.  Recall the situation in the mid-90's?  Netscape had all kinds of innovative, non-WC3 standard, features that seemed to be designed to ensure IE incompatibility.  Who knows?  Maybe the folks on the ground at NetScape can justify their decisions.  Maybe it was all MicroSoft's fault (a hypothesis I personally find spiritually satisfying).  Clearly, however, the two major browsers of the time were at war, struggling to make it difficult, if not impossible, to design pages that worked well with both browsers and meanwhile tempting designers to use features that broke on the competing browsers.

Okay, so that was the '90's.  So what?  It doesn't seem to have gotten much better.  Just as the new unicode font system is wreaking havoc with all kinds of legacy applications, even fairly new versions of major apps like COREL Draw or Acrobat, so the browser designers are clearly placing a very low priority on maintaining compatibility with their competitors.  This means enormous amounts of wasted time for web designers.

Or, one could do the opposite take and call it job security.  From the standpoint of a company such as MicroSoft, this is building hierarchical branding.  It is taking a working, fixable system and little by little breaking it to the point that only a web guru with lots of help in the form of professional authoring programs (which MicroSoft happens to sell) can do what any amateur could have done ten years ago, as I have proven with my virtual steampunk best-seller site.

It's like what MicroSoft did with BASIC, converting a language whose very name was chosen to indicate that this was a programming language for everyman into a monster - Visual BASIC - that requires a year or so just to get up to speed.  Or the way they deliberately torpedoed Sun's JAVA, leaving the computer user with no way to generate programs on his or her own.

Anything to create and secure a privileged position for the elite guild of MS certified microserfs.  By first sucking everyone in with the free IE, and then introducing successive waves of incompatibility, such as artificially restricting Bookmarklets, for one obvious case, they have moved us far down the road in which we are all passive consumers, locked into particular brands because they only work with each other.  

It doesn't even matter that IE is fast losing marketshare.  Additional competitors means more incompatibility, which means more money going into dealing with that incompatibility, instead of design and innovation.  If other competing webdesigner guilds form, so much the better.  They will join forces to keep their status, regardless.  Remember the arrogant guys in the white smocks who were the accolates of the company mainframe?  They may be back soon.

Thus, the designs for hypermedia from IEEE in the '70's, largely spinoffs of Ted Nelson's Xanadu, have still not seen implementation in 2010.  We still don't have standardized micropayments or automatic back referencing, for just two examples, or the ability, so far as I know, to share our browser window with other users, so that they can watch over our shoulder and comment, add links on the fly, etc., even though there is nothing technically unfeasible about it (and that one is my idea).

The current situation re the proposal by Verizon and Google and the reaction to it from the net neutrality people makes me recall what happened with the Bell system breakup.  Remember when long-distance cost a fortune and you only called distant relatives on major holidays?  And then it turned out, after the breakup, that they actually had tons of unused capacity and could have offered things like conference calls or long distance for a tiny fraction of what they had been charging. 

The clue was in the fact that as a condition for being allowed monopoly status, they had to abide by pricing rules that gave them a certain fixed profit.  There was NO incentive to improve when you couldn't charge for the improvements.  Recall all those fantastic inventions out of Bell Labs, such as stereo records in the 1920's.  Few of them ever made it to market due to the anti-monopoly deal. 

Too bad so many of the NN people are too young to recall the price wars when the monopoly was broken.  Suddenly phone time costs dropped by 75% or more.  I recall one company - I think MCI - offering me a $1,000 of free long distance for a month if I just signed up with them.  I did, and used my long distance to modem all over the world for free, and then I switched to AT&T, who offered a better deal.

The logical thing is to charge by costs.  More bits cost the network more, so charge proportionally for used bandwidth.  Otherwise you're creating free riders who will have - and DO have now - every incentive to lock the system up, meaning no incentive to improve bandwidth.  Of course, the downside is that it would require monitoring of transaction costs.  However, my guess is that that would be relatively small compared to the cost of  zillions of spam emailings.

In summary, the actual access costs are largely set by bandwidth.  Net neutrality means that the hogs rule.  Their "free ride" is being paid for by the text oriented users, who are slowed down, often to a crawl, because of the hogs.  The typical video downloader is costing a thousand times the actual costs of the typical blogger.  There is a lessened incentive for service providers to increase access speeds for anyone when they know that anything they do will simply be nullified by the hogs, while their income base will scarcely be effected, as the majority users will still see a slowdown. 

One approach to the data hogs would be to incorporate microcharge payments into the browser.  Charge for incoming - but mainly on the basis of what actually gets through and accessed by the user.  Also, let everyone set an access price - or as many separate prices as they choose.  Mom gets in free.  The people who they really want to contact them can get in free - or maybe even be paid some amount for their company.  The Viagra pushers have to pay if they want in to the email box.  BAMMM!  That's the sound of all that junk mail suddenly collapsing into a vacume.  Guess how many of the spammers will be willing to shell out $o.10 per customer for a hundred million customers? 

Next, instead of borrowing the innately stupid model of broadcast TV for financing web services via ads, why not let the webpage provider - Google, Yahoo, whoever - demand a small cut in these already micro-transactions. 

Why would anyone go for that? 

TIME IS MONEY!   What possible better focused incentive could you give them to make your web experience as perfect and fast as possible, when they're getting paid on the basis of how many people are willing to pay to talk at you?  By paying them on the basis of actual desired performance, you create one of those "virtuous circles."  They only profit when people are willing to pay to contact you.  The more valuable you and your company or your services and products are, the more people will pay you, and the more the service provider makes. 

Under this model, every website becomes an engine for not just making money, but for focusing and refining everything that is truly valuable about the web.  People will contact you because they really think they have something you want and they're willing to pay up front for your time to consider their product.

If you are a certifiable genius in your field, then let people pay to talk to you.  If someone else really does have a truly marveleous idea in your field, but has no way to get your ear through normal channels, offer to let them spout their crackpot nonsense for a price that makes it worthwhile to you.  Anyone who will pay $10,000 per hour gets your ear.

Finally, the reality is that we are not and have never been net neutral.  There are vast differences in access price, by country, by region, by locality, by access type - dial-up vs cable vs WiFi, for example, not to mention the bandwidth competition among cell networks, which include internet access now, as a rule.  There is lots of competition over access modality, and it drives improvements.  In this game, it is network neutrality which is the problem, undercutting the advantage of improvements, and thus undercutting the incentive to improve service. 

The game is afoot.  Things are going to get interesting in the next couple decades.  The cell phone app competition is leading directly to forms of ubiquitous overlaid reality, in which the dataverse/mediaverses will merge more or less seemlessly with unenhanced physical reality.  There are also vast dangers emerging, such as a new elitism in which some people live in a very different, perhaps vastly more fun and higher quality, reality than others, potentially as well a new hierarchy of serfs and masters.  Thus the importance of understanding the issues of net neutrality, among others, not just for this moment, but projected down the next few decades at least.

For a realistic preview of what's coming, I suggest readers check out Vernor Vinge's Hugo Award Winning novel, "Rainbows End."  (Vinge invented the cyberpunk genre with his "True Names" and added the term "singularity" (as applied to human progress) to our vocabulary)  Another mind-opener is Charles Stross's "Accelerando."

On reflection...

(The difficulty of course is that the above arguments are not one-sided.  Like the phone companies and the cable companies who purchased rights to landlines or wireless bandwidth, there is a strong inherent element of state mandated monopoly here, which is almost a formula for corruption.  Everyone is familiar with the experience of lousy cable that just keeps getting more expensive.  However, it has only been the competition from other venues that has finally forced cable to start waking up and trying to improve service.

There are those who conclude that this is just another corporate power grab by Google/Verizon.  There are good reasons for this kind of reaction, and I am quite sympathetic to them.  I have made myself something of a pariah in various circles by my call for the end of the corporation as such.  My position is that most businesses are forced into the corporate mold by the necessity to put a cap on risk. 

Once they are an .inc., then the built-in incentives of corporatism exert a pressure on the company to behave in certain ways, including discounting risk below the state fiat ceiling - as with BP.  However, most people who start companies and incorporate do not miraculously then become demons.  Most of them continue to be responsible businessmen.  For purposes of evaluating any particular company, we have to look at how they actually behave when moral issues are at stake.  Every company has an inherent philosophy that determines its character and behaviour over time.  Many companies are able to take a principled stand for rigorous morals, regardless of the perverse pressures and temptations the corporate model* implies.

Google has, overall, an exemplary record, involving many long term commitments to major projects that will clearly make our world better.  Maybe this time they screwed up.  However, I have yet to see the proof of that, and simply yelling CORPORATION is not a rational means of evaluation.

*Imagine that you are have a company with one really important employee.  This employee doesn't eat much - nothing, actually - has no wages, but does all the work without ever taking credit, cannot ever quit his job, no matter how badly he's treated, and, when things go seriously wrong, steps in to take full responsibility, freeing you to party on no matter how much you have cost other people.  This employee - let's call him Corpee - is created by the state for you for the express purpose of keeping you in line with the state's agenda.  Corpee is an artificial person, a child of the state, and since the state created him, he belongs to them and will do what they want. 

That's the theory.  The California Ariticles of Incorporation has language that clearly requires a corporation to agree that they will always act consistent with the public interest, yet until recently not a single California corporation had ever been prosecuted under this clause.  The reality is that the corporations actually call most of the shots, because they have a lot more money to bring to bear on politicians and bureaucrats than the state can match.  There is a notorious revolving door between the corporation and the bureaucracy, whether IRS or any of the alphabet soup of other regulatory agencies. 

(The IRS cannot even generate the internal fortitude to go after companies that shift all their profits to a foreign subsidiary, then sit here in the U.S., getting all the free infrastructure, etc., while paying no taxes and putting every U.S. manufacturer who does pay taxes out of business.)

The regulatory agencies major job, in fact, is making the very corporations they regulate happy, meaning setting regs that prevent real upstart competition, and shielding the corporations from serious legal liability on the grounds of double jeopardy, substituting a slap on the wrist fine for real damages to real victims, who are legally blocked from sueing.  Or, on a much broader scale, using state created and enforced intellectual property to prevent competition and innovation in the marketplace.

So, if you had Corpee as your employee, wouldn't you feel a little more inclined, when things got rough, to take a few extra risks?  And, if not, how long will you last, and how will you justify your behavior to your stockholders?

To be continued...



on Aug 16, 2010

I agree with your premise as far as it goes.  But Net Neutrality if more than that, at least on paper (in practice??????).  I am not sold on the issue yet as I think instead of addressing the real issues, the government is trying to take control of the Net with their rhetoric.

The real issue should be about the availability of 2 similar sources being equal.  Not that all sources are equal (we know there are hogs and such).  So the Video Downloader is going to hog a lot more bandwidth than the search user.  But the rules state they should be treated equally.  Because Congress is trying to grab control and when it comes to fixing things, they rarely get it right.