Dr. Jerry Pournelle

Email Me

Why not subscribe now?

Chaos Manor Subscribe Now

Useful Link(s)...


Hosting by

Powered by Apache

Computing At Chaos Manor:
February 6, 2007

The User's Column, February, 2007
Column 319, part 3
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Continued from last week.

Net neutrality is back. It was never a big ticket item for the Democrats, in part because no one really understood it, and that definitely includes a great many of the million or so who signed the "Save the Internet" petition supporting "net neutrality" (http://www.savetheinternet.com/).

The petition reads "Congress must preserve a free and open Internet. Please vote for enforceable network neutrality and keep tollbooths, gatekeepers, and discrimination off my Internet." Alas that doesn't mean very much: it certainly won't tell us how to draft legislation. Taken literally it means that you can't charge for Internet access, and surely they don't mean that?

The FAQ at the Save The Internet site says

What is Network Neutrality?

Network Neutrality — or "Net Neutrality" for short — is the guiding principle that preserves the free and open Internet.

Net Neutrality ensures that all users can access the content or run the applications and devices of their choice. With Net Neutrality, the network's only job is to move data — not choose which data to privilege with higher quality service. Net Neutrality prevents the companies that control the wires from discriminating against content based on its source or ownership.

Net Neutrality is the reason why the Internet has driven economic innovation, democratic participation, and free speech online. It's why the Internet has become an unrivaled environment for open communications, civic involvement and free speech.

I may be a bit dense, but I can't figure out how to write a law from that either. Moreover, so far as I know, the Internet Service Providers certainly do discriminate against content from known spammers and pornographers, and that, I would think, is discriminating based on source and/or ownership. I doubt very much that we will save the Internet by making it harder to block spam, phishing, and scam artists.

Digging further into the Save the Internet site I find Net Neutrality 101, which tells me:

The biggest cable and telephone companies would like to charge money for smooth access to Web sites, speed to run applications, and permission to plug in devices. These network giants believe they should be able to charge Web site operators, application providers, and device manufacturers for the right to use the network. Those who don't make a deal and pay up will experience discrimination: Their sites won't load as quickly, their applications and devices won't work as well. Without legal protection, consumers could find that a network operator has blocked the Web site of a competitor, or slowed it down so much that it's unusable.

The network owners say they want a "tiered" Internet. If you pay to get in the top tier, your site and your service will run fast. If you don't, you'll be in the slow lane.

That, at last, is specific, but it's also pretty vague, and I don't find many specifics or practical examples. Note that I am not alone in being confused. More than one Congressman has said that this issue is the most complicated he has ever faced. Naturally all Congresscritters "want what's best for the consumer," but then they always say that; your actual results may vary. But those who have to enact the legislation think it's complex and confusing. Where does that leave the rest of us?

What Is Net Neutrality?

So: we may be relieved to find a specific legal example of net neutrality approved apparently by most of those who desire it.

As part of the deal for AT&T to merge with BellSouth, the Federal Communications Commission persuaded AT&T to agree "not to provide or to sell to Internet content, application or service providers ... any service that privileges, degrades or prioritizes any (data) packet transmitted over AT&T/BellSouth's wireline broadband Internet access service based on its source, ownership or destination."

This, apparently, is the legal definition of net neutrality, and we now know what it is we are discussing.

What this apparently says is that AT&T must provide you, with your home based web server, bandwidth of the same quality as it provides a company that wants to sell movies on demand. That may or may not make economic sense. I am sure the cable companies will cheer.

Whether or not it provides AT&T with incentive to string more fiber or invest in improving Internet service is also open to question. The Save the Internet advocates are convinced that this legislation is needed so that the United States can catch up with the other parts of the world that have better Internet service than we have. South Korea is given as an example. They are far ahead of us, and this is due to their "tradition of constructive and proactive government policy and involvement in building industry and technological capability to be competitive in the international market."

Since Speaker Pelosi is apparently in favor of this, and Ed Markey of Massachusetts will push for it with the Speaker's support, it looks to be inevitable. Is it time to start cheering?

Whose Fight Is This?

At bottom this is a quarrel between those who believe in regulation and the positive benefit of government action and those who are a bit more dubious about the benefits conferred on us by bureaucrats. The socialist argument — I used to make it as an undergraduate — is that it is absurd to have forty competing brands of soap on grocery shelves. Surely it would be more rational to have one good one and sell it for a reasonable price, saving on all those costs of branding and advertising, and all the waste of making those competing brands. I can recall being fairly passionate on this subject: rational planning was going to solve a lot of problems and save a great deal of money. Over time I lost my zeal for such arguments, and became considerably more cynical about the obvious benefits of regulation for increasing supply and lowering prices.

We had regulation at one time: AT&T was a regulated public utility. It provided us with good telephone service — almost everyone had dial tone — at what the regulators thought were reasonable prices. It also supported Bell Labs, the advanced R&D Center for the human race. AT&T was broken up and deregulated, and I am told the effects were beneficial (other than the elimination of Bell Labs, which I count as an unmitigated tragedy of gargantuan proportion).

Ron Morse adds

AT&T did provide good service, but connecting a modem to ATT's phone line without their consent was a violation of regulations. I don't know if anyone ever really got into trouble by doing that (and you remember how expensive modems were back in the day), but ATT could certainly come to your house and tell you to remove it (and your pink wired telephone if it wasn't their pink wired telephone) and you had very little recourse except to buy a "business line" at a higher subscription rate that would miraculously spring forth from the same junction block as your residential line as soon as you signed the paper. To the extent regulation can protect the consumer it can also stifle innovation. The tradeoffs must be made with great care.

Ron Morse

All of which was true enough. There was a lot of discussion about changing the regulations, and that was happening albeit slowly. Public pressure was forcing AT&T to allow third party telephones and modems; there was discussion of isolation devices and their cost. All of this was rendered moot by the AT&T breakup. It's another example of how regulation actually works: sometimes well, but never perfectly, and often horribly.

The interesting part is that while the Democratic Party has always favored regulation over deregulation, many of the Net Citizens who favor legislation forcing net neutrality are generally the first to denounce government regulation and to argue that a free market is always superior to bureaucratic control. Apparently net neutrality is more important than the principle that government is best when it governs least.

As for me, I am not convinced: so long as there is real competition, say between cable companies and the Telco, then I would have thought that regulation favoring one over the other is probably not a good idea. I also think that the Chairman of AT&T sparked all this with his silly talk of not letting people use "his pipes" for free. The one certain thing here is that lobbyists and lawyers will make lots of money out of it.

Discussing Net Neutrality

One of the best things about being me is that I get to listen to bright people discuss what I say, often before I say it in public. The old BYTE in Peterborough had 30 of the best technical editors in the world. That's gone, but I have assembled a group of volunteer advisors. There aren't as many as BYTE Peterborough had, but they're just as good.

My essay on security prompted an important debate between Bob Thompson and Eric Pobirs. It's too long for today's column, but I will edit it for next week's mailbag.

My thoughts on net neutrality also sparked a lot of discussion. Robert Bruce Thompson (Building the Perfect PC) says

Regarding Cable vs. Telco, I don't see how you think net neutrality regulation is favoring one over the other. The goal of Net neutrality regulation is simply that service providers cannot have the benefit of common carrier status if they are not behaving as common carriers. Right now, Time Warner Cable charges me for my service and Google's service providers charge it for the service they provide to it. If I visit Google, Time Warner can't charge Google for delivering the packets I request from Google. But Time Warner wants to "double dip" by charging Google as well as me, with the implied threat that if Google doesn't pay up, Time Warner will degrade delivery of its packets to me.

Or, to use a more concrete example, Time-Warner Cable in Winston-Salem offers its own VoIP service. It charges about twice as much per month as Vonage does. TWC VoIP service also charges per minute rates for calls to many locations for which Vonage doesn't charge per minute. Those locations for which Vonage does charge per minute are typically charged at a much higher minutely rate by TWC.

So, superficially, there's not much to decide. Vonage clearly offers better service at a much better rate. But what if TWC degrades Vonage packets (or, which amounts to the same thing, gives its own VoIP packets preferential handling)?

I've already paid TWC for my service, and Vonage has already paid its providers for its service. And there sits TWC in the middle, telling Vonage that if it wants decent service it has to pay TWC. So, what we have here is a government-granted monopoly, which is supposed to be selling bandwidth as a common carrier, instead offering value-added services under common carrier rules, and using its monopoly position to enrich itself, either at my expense directly or at Vonage's expense, which of course I end up paying for.

I think the real problem here is that monopoly service providers should be limited to delivering packets, regardless of source or destination. Once you open the door to them providing value-added non-bandwidth related services for additional fees, you're going to end up screwing their customers one way or another.

Note that I don't have any objection to them providing faster or better service for a higher fee, as long as it's even-handed. For example, right now I pay TWC something like $50/month for maximum 6 Mb/s down and 768 Kb/s up and a dynamic IP address. If I want to pay more, I can have faster service, a static IP address, etc. That's fine. If TWC wanted to implement QoS to the subscriber level and give me the option to pay more per month for higher priority handling of my packets, that's also fine. I might even opt to pay that charge to make Vonage sound better.

What's not fine is for them to use their monopoly position to compete directly with services that are delivered over the line I'm paying them for.

Alas, that leaves me a bit confused. My original thought was simple: cable companies already deliver movies including pay for view; a rival company would have to invest in expanding bandwidth in order to do that. If they can't charge extra for that service — if the kid down the street who spends 24 hours a day downloading pirated movies, and the old geezer in the attic across the street who does the same with pornography must get the same quality of service at the same price over the new high capacity lines as one who subscribes to pay for view — then there isn't a lot of incentive to expand that bandwidth.

I have considerable concern about censorship. I don't want to set up government means to stop either the kid or the geezer, but I do object to laws that in effect subsidize them. If we all have to pay the same rates, those who use the services more are being subsidized by those who don't.

It may well be possible to devise regulations that accomplish your very reasonable goals, but I'd like to see the specifics. Regulations seldom accomplish all and only the effects their advocates intend, and I'd think all Libertarians would be certain of that. I am not at all sure that signing that Save The Internet petition accomplishes what you want; what it literally asks for is something none of us want, and at least some of the beneficiaries of that petition have taken it as support for vastly more regulation in aid of more "public benefits".

As an example, this morning's paper tells me that some opponents of free WiFi in San Francisco now want Google and Earthlink to pay to subsidize the electric power bills for those people who use their computers more (and thus get higher electricity bills) because of the free WiFi. When people set out to do good with other people's money, their ambitions know few bounds.

Another example from today's papers: a chap was fired by IBM for watching porn on company computers on company time. He is suing because he claims that he is a sex addict, and thus has a disability, and thus is protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). He has precedents: being drunk on the job is protected if you're an alcoholic. Now I am sure that some of the proponents of the ADA are cheering at this; but I am also sure that most of those involved in enacting that law did not intend this consequence.

I see "Net Neutrality" as the opening to give the Federal Communications Commission a great deal more power over the Internet, and I predict that those who invited that camel into the tent will one day regret it. Once the hind end of the camel is in the tent with you, you have no control over where it deposits its load...

Short Vista Report

I have been using Vista on a Core 2 Duo E6600 with 3 GB of memory (4 actually, but 32-bit Vista only sees 3) and nVidia 7600 for more than a month, and I am writing this column with it now.

Sometimes it takes Vista a bit longer to open applications programs; that seems to be correlated with upgrades, because at no predictable interval an "installer" pops up when I invoke Word 2007.

I have had a few minor annoyances generated by forgetting where Vista puts things.

Otherwise, I have no complaints at all. Vista does multi-tasking much better than XP. It is far easier to go into a complex on-line game such as World of Warcraft or Eve On-Line, alt-tab out to the desktop to do something else, then reenter the game. I say easier, but in fact sometimes under XP entering the game again was impossible. It's simple with Vista.

In general, I continue to like Vista, but do recall that it's running on one of the fastest machines in the house.

If you're running Vista, go to http://AccuWeather.com and get this free gizmo. You'll like it.

Microsoft Security Newsletter and other Such Matters

I recently got a copy of the Microsoft Security Newsletter and asked my advisors about its usefulness. Security expert Rick Hellewell says

Subject: Re: FW: Microsoft Security Newsletter - Volume 4, Issue 2

Dr. Pournelle:

Microsoft has several different newsletters, including one for 'consumers' (less technical) and the technical one that you referenced. I subscribe to both, and have found them to be useful .

The Microsoft security site is a good starting point for all categories of users. The "consumer" section includes many articles and videos that would be informative to home users, including how to protect children on the web, and protecting your financial identity. I have found many of the articles to be useful and informative. You can subscribe to the various MS newsletters in that area.

Technical/experienced users might find some of the Consumer information basic, and may denigrate it as such. But I believe there is good information in there for "Aunt Minnie", and written at an understandable level.

Regards, Rick Hellewell

Rick Hellewell also says

Problems with Apple Updates

Dr. Pournelle:

The Internet Storm Center reports initial problems with some of the just-released updates/patches from Apple. They report that the problem is fixed, but users may want to re-check their Apple updates to ensure full update/patching. (see this link)

And the Microsoft updates are out this week, as per schedule. No reports of problems. Automatic updates recommended for all.

Also an important security update for ClamAV (open-source anti-virus program) released this week.

And note that the mainstream press is starting to discuss the Daylight Saving Time changes (article in today's Wall Street Journal, stories on MSNBC, etc.)

Rick Hellewell

The point here is that while Windows users are more likely to be attacked by viruses and worms, as Apple and Linux gain popularity more attention will go to those as well. Just because you're not using Windows doesn't automatically make you safe.

Clean Installation of Upgrade Vista

Most experts will tell you that if you're going to upgrade a system to Vista, you shouldn't simply install Vista on top of an existing Windows OS; instead you should scrub down to bare metal. Reformat the hard drive and start over. That way you won't inherit problems from a messed up registry and other such sources.

The problem is that installing an "Upgrade" copy of Vista requires that you have a copy of Windows on your system to begin with. You can get around this buy purchasing an original installation version of Vista, but that's pretty expensive. Fortunately there's a work around.

Step One: start the installation and tell the installer to format the hard drive.

Step Two: When it asks you for your product key, leave that blank. Be sure to de-select automatic activation. You are not going to activate this yet. Finish the installation.

Step Three. Install once more, this time as an "upgrade" installation without reformatting. This time when it asks for the product key, give it. Then let this installation activate itself.

You're done.

Clean vs. Upgrade

Everyone I have discussed this with believes it's better to do a clean as oppose to an upgrade installation of Vista, but in fact I have had no experience with this. I did install one of the Release Candidates of Vista as an upgrade on an XP system, and I did have problems with it; but everyone had similar problems with that RC version, so I can't say this was due to my doing an upgrade install. All my applications including games worked well without reinstallation, and that sure made things easier.

Logic tells us that a clean install with clean installation of applications is the superior way to go, and that's what I did with the Vista system I am writing this on, but if you decide to try the upgrade route, thus saving having to do all that re-installation, I'd like to know how it works out.


If we didn't have enough to worry about, now there's IPv6, which I doubt many of you have ever heard of.

To find out more, see this article: New Airport Extreme could expose Macs via IPv6

IPv6 is a new Internet protocol. One purpose of IPv6 is to make for longer net addresses, and thus allow for more Internet addresses. It's hardly astonishing that Apple would implement this in new systems. My concern was whether this was an actual threat. I got this early one morning and I said "I haven't had my coffee yet. Is this a serious threat?"

Peter Glaskowsky said

Probably not, but it's sort of interesting.

If there's a public IPv6 address for a machine on a user's LAN, it's possible for a Black Hat to send packets to it. But I'm not sure how the bad guys would find the machine. Scanning the standard 32-bit IPv4 address space is one thing, but finding targets by scanning the 128-bit IPv6 space could take a long time.

I suppose it boils down to the exact implementation and whether there are practical exploits for it.

. png

Vista also supports IPv6. At the moment that hardly matters, but IPv6 has the potential to implement sender authentication/verification for email. That could be very important.

Marty Winston suggests that one way to implement sender authentication is to make it a USPS revenue center so access to US addressees can mandate it or else not pass the mail. I doubt this will ever happen, but it's an intriguing idea.

I have some mixed emotions here: anonymous pamphleteering was very important to the Committees of Correspondence that organized the American Revolution, and it is a right that the Framers were zealous to protect. Once we have secure sender verification, most of us will use it and reject all mail that doesn't employ it. That will effectively eliminate anonymous pamphleteering. I don't know if that's important, but it does concern me.