ASPEN, Colo.--Verizon's chief technologist took a swipe at Net neutrality advocates on Tuesday, saying the concept has become overly politicized and important engineering details have been overlooked in Washington debates.
"We need to guard against turning technical and business decisions into political decisions," Verizon's Richard Lynch said at the Progress and Freedom Foundation's technology policy conference here.
Lynch gave the example of a customer placing a call using a voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, service that relies on time-sensitive packets. Unless a continuous stream of VoIP packets arrives, the call quality can suffer or even become incomprehensible.
How to accomplish that in a congested network? The answer may include delaying peer-to-peer transfers. "For me as a carrier, I need to satisfy the VoIP customer--whether it's mine or someone else's is irrelevant here--by delivering those packets in a timely fashion," Lynch said. "That may mean that for economic reasons, within the network, to keep the cost reasonable to keep the price reasonable, that I need to slow down (what's not) a time-sensitive file."
Some people hearing this "get all incensed and they accuse me of violating things I didn't even know that I could violate," he said. Customers who are "doing a P2P download or e-mail, they aren't going to see that 22-millisecond delay. And yet that's the kind of thing that seems to (cause) paranoia."
A Verizon representative told us after the talk that the company is not prioritizing VoIP over peer-to-peer traffic, and that Lynch was speaking generally about approaches to the problem of congestion that all broadband providers face. Verizon has stressed that it spends over $16 billion a year on adding greater capacity to its network and says it is working collaboratively with peer-to-peer companies through the P4P working group to "maximize networks for consumers."
Lynch's remarks come weeks after the Federal Communications Commission ruled against Comcast for adopting the same general sort of network management practices. By a narrow 3-2 vote, the FCC handed Comcast a cease-and-desist order telling it not to interfere with BitTorrent transfers, even though the company had already ceased the practice back in March.
What may strike an outside observer as bizarre is that the FCC votes for an order before it's actually written. The order is still being drafted, and the text of the document will eventually be released. (One source in a position to know said that the dissenting FCC commissioners still haven't been given the text.)
Taking the measure of Net neutrality
Joe Waz, Comcast's senior vice president for external affairs, said the arguments of Net neutrality proponents--presumably meaning groups like Free Press and Public Knowledge--were "absurd."
"The issue was an engineering issue," Waz said in a panel discussion following Lynch's speech. He added that critics claimed Comcast was trying to disadvantage P2P video to benefit its own video offerings--but they never explained "why we wouldn't interfere with streaming video" from sites like YouTube that could be handled better.
Robert McDowell, one of the two dissenting FCC commissioners, said there were "evidentiary jurisprudence" problems with the agency's ruling. In part, McDowell said, "there were a couple of unsigned declarations" that the FCC relied on.
"Governments need to make sure they have a very thorough record," he said. "The FCC of late has not been doing that."
Kathleen Abernathy, a former FCC commissioner and now a partner at the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, agreed that the term Net neutrality made little sense. (Abernathy is also a director of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a free-market group that has been a critic of the concept.)
"It was such a great phrase that it's morphed into more than what it really is," Abernathy said. "You have to peel it back and ask, 'What do you really mean?'"
Both Comcast and Verizon said that engineers, not lawyers and lobbyists, should be making network management decisions. "I do get very, very concerned that the people who are taking things like deep packet inspection and making it a horrible thing need to look at it from an engineer's viewpoint," Lynch said.
On a related note, Lynch said that Verizon was trying to work cooperatively with large content holders--the very ones that said Monday they wanted broadband providers to filter their networks--and wanted them to "feel comfortable that their content will be dealt with in the way they truly believe it should be."
But he stopped short of saying Verizon would actively monitor its customers' online activities to detect copyright violations. "I can't tell you that I will police for you," he said. "I don't think it would be appropriate for me to do that...(We want) to stay on the right side of the privacy position that we've taken as a company."
AT&T, by contrast, said in January that it was testing technology to spot piratical activity. On Monday, we asked the company about its current plans. (We asked: "Can you confirm that AT&T is not monitoring and has no plans to monitor its customers' traffic or other online activities to detect possible copyright infringements?")
Spokesman Michael Balmoris replied in a way that didn't exactly answer the question: "We have said that we are working with some in the content industry with the goal of encouraging the legal downloads of movies, TV shows, and other entertainment and content--we want our customers to access any legal content they want. In addition, let's set the record straight: we have not said that we are going to filter our customers traffic to detect possible copyright violations."
Updated at 11 p.m. PT with subsequent comments from a Verizon representative.