Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Libertarian's take on the Detroit Water Project

I recently had dinner with a good friend, who, as it happens, is a fairly staunch liberal. He made a joke at some point in the evening about me being "a conservative." Of course, my political leanings are towards libertarian more than anything else, so to highlight the difference, I explained that he and I shared the same end goals, politically: I'm pro-choice, egalitarian, and against corporatism. I dislike military adventurism. I support equal work for equal pay. So on and so forth.

"The only difference between us", I went on, "is that you think the way to achieve all of these goals, is through government".

In the minds of my more progressive friends, their default instinct to solve any problem is a simple three step process:
1) Voting your conscience is just as good as acting upon it.
2) Tax "the rich"
3) Government will handle the rest.

They're happy to let government act as a proxy for them, allowing someone else to do the work (government programs), and someone else to pay for it (the apocryphal "rich".)

It's not that I think that government doesn't have a good and proper role in our lives, it's only that I feel like it should be our absolute last resort. It's never efficient, rarely effective, and frequently unintentionally harmful. It's best left to those roles that can't be filled by any other form of collective action. And thanks to the internet, there are new forms of collective action taking shape every day to step in. Problems that 25 years ago were only solvable by large monolithic institutions, like corporations or governments, are now solvable through ad-hoc collective action, organizing people via new technology.

Which brings us to the Detroit Water Project.

Here is a true grassroots movement, started by web developer Tiffani Bell and designer Kristy Tillman, to do one simple thing: when the city started shutting off water to homes who were delinquent in their water payments, they stepped in to match willing donors to accounts that were in arrears. Today, my pledge was matched with an overdue account that I could pay off directly for someone in need that I didn't personally know. This is a logistical lift that would have been impossible to recruit for, and impossible to coordinate before the internet. The Detroit Water Project isn't an organization or a foundation. It simply coordinated people who wanted to help, with their own cash, with accounts that needed paying, directly. It's ad-hoc, and low-overhead. Most importantly, the bills got paid, so the people in need are cared for, and the water company got it's due. All parties are satisfied without having an outside authority step in and pick a winner and a loser.

It's important not to overlook the marvel that this is: it's not any form of institution that existed before the internet; it's not a corporation, a church, a government, or a non-profit. It's just a pop-up phenomenon, led by two people who cared enough to gather other caring people to them, and pointed them at the people who needed their help. For the first time in human history, this kind of charity is truly scalable.

This project is a model for the kinds of solutions that are possible in the 21st century--solutions that go beyond the "government vs. corporations" left-right mentality that taints our political discourse, and distorts our options to collectively solve the problems that our society faces. This kind of collective action keeps us directly involved, but still scales to levels that allow real change and broad effect. So few human accomplishments that really matter are individual achievements; collective action is necessary to solve big problems. This is a powerful new way to think about how we can organize ourselves to solve some of our toughest problems, and no matter where you fall in the traditional political spectrum, it satisfies the desire to collectively organize to help those in need, while bypassing the inefficiency and clumsiness of asking the government to go and do it for you.

Thank you Tiffani and Kristy, for your efforts to organize this project. It's an incredible testament to what caring people will do when given the opportunity.

 

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Net Neutrality: Quick Highlights


Looks like there's a new set of proposals coming regarding Net Neutrality from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. Some details have been leaked, but we'll have to wait until May 15th to see everything. More than a few people have been asking my opinion, so I'm going to dump everything here, and refer back to it.

1) Net Neutrality is a loaded term.
On the surface, I'm a huge proponent of Net Neutrality. But when I say that, I want to see exactly what the TCPIP protocol was built for: best-effort per-packet delivery, end to end. However, I can promise you that if you put any two people in a room, you're going to come up with two different definitions of Net Neutrality. My idea of Net Neutrality, for example, is much different than Netflix's. (Netflix reluctantly signed an agreement this year where they had to pay Comcast to connect to their network in order to get the speeds necessary to make sure your House of Cards marathon didn't stutter. ) [1] In many cases, you don't want your traffic treated neutrally, you want it prioritized. Which brings us to...

2) Paid Peering.
Paid Peering is the process by which, essentially, big content providers host copies of their servers directly adjacent to or within ISPs so the traffic doesn't have to cross the whole internet to get from Netflix/Google/Microsoft to you, the end user. These agreements have never been covered by Net Neutrality, and it appears the new rules won't try and curb them either. This is a good thing. Network congestion scales exponentially over distances (hops), meaning that every hop we can remove between that Microsoft Update and your home PC is bandwidth freed up. Of course, the difference between Paid Peering and simply connecting edge networks directly together is a bit fuzzy, which is why the FCC wants to address complaints on a case-by-case basis, which Net Neutrality advocates are opposed to. I'm pretty much for it, pending some conditions, for example...

3) Transparency and "Reasonable Network Management Practices"
This is the crux of the recent hissy-fit. The 2010 Open Internet Order from the FCC barred "unreasonable discrimination" against traffic; the new (leaked) proposal allows for "commercially reasonable" traffic management. The difference is a fine one, but it should be noted that the first order was struck down largely because of this wording. Thus the proposed changes. The thing I'll be combing through the May 15th release for is protections providing for transparency and disclosure of the network management practices by ISPs and other carriers. Disclosure isn't going to be an absolute necessity. If you recall the evidence that Comcast was holding up BitTorrent traffic purposely on its network was rooted out by everyday Internet users, using free tools. However,anything that promotes sunlight would help. But the most vociferous advocates of Net Neutrality just aren't going to be happy until we have...



Telecom Regulated: the first 80 years

Telecom Deregulated: the last 20 years 


4) Reclassifying Broadband as a Tier II  telecommunication service by the FCC.
This is what most of the online petitions, and carefully crafted outrage by organizations like Free Press and Public Knowledge are really after. How anybody can look at the track record of the FCC ruling the common carriers and think that it's the way forward to innovation on the Internet, I do not know. It's very tough for me to equate the days of Ma Bell, where the Western Electric Model 302 didn't change for 60 years, to 1984's breakup of AT&T created an explosion of new phone technology and the creation of cellular networks and free long distance calls.

When the proposal is made public on the 15th, I'm sure I'll be revisiting the topic. Wheeler wants to get something approved by the end of the year, which would be at light-speed for the FCC. We'll have plenty of time to argue over it, but until then, don't sign any petitions until you really know the details. You may not be getting what you bargain for.

Updates:
[1]: (4/30/2014): In the Netflix example, Netflix wanted to use Net Neutrality to force Comcast to cover the cost of providing high-speed access from Netflix to Comcast users at no charge to Netflix. This would ultimately mean that non-Netflix-using Comcast customers would foot the bill to subsidize their Netflixing brethren. See how the some interpretations of "Net Neutrality", and their unintended consequences, can get messy fast?

[2]: (2/27/2015): Well, we had to wait a lot longer than until May. In fact, I thought this was a dead issue, until the President revived it. And it pretty much looks like we exactly what I mentioned in #4 above, reclassifying broadband as a Tier II Telecommunication service.