Feature Article

December 03, 2014

Net Neutrality, and its Relation to Pizza and Uber Services

Our friend Martin Geddes did a nice job of summarizing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s issues with Net Neutrality and the “Brand X” case. Geddes made the argument that ISPs should not be considered carriage and therefore ISP regulation does not fit into the regulatory and legislative agenda here in the U.S.

On the surface, Geddes does a good job of showing the fallacy associated with the discussion of packets and pizzas. Rightly, he points out that pizza delivery is not an accurate portrayal of packet delivery. But as I read his analysis, I was struck by the fact that pizza delivery was such a bad example.

Pizza delivery shares the common carriage of a roadway built normally by government for everyone’s benefit. The delivery person goes to specific locations based on a customer’s willingness to pay for the service of hot food, and may tip the person. In no way is the delivery random, so the common carriage is the road and the act of delivery.

So right off the bat talking about pizza delivery is a bad analogy. Geddes then brings in Uber as a service that aggregates, and I could make the case that pizza and Uber are exactly alike; taking customers’ orders and delivering the service to where they are on the common carriage of a road. Tipping is optional in both cases, but carriage is not part of the service except for the embedded cost of gas.

Are you with me so far?

Now here comes the issue: What if the road is blocked or congested?  Who is responsible for delivery of the service? Is it a force majeure, an ‘unavoidable accident’? If this happens, the delivery is out of the embedded costs, and the other party is hungry or stranded. If this happens enough times the government may have to intervene and expand or repair the road based on the level of complaint.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

There is an expectation that the carriage is there. What can I use as an analogy for carriage?

How about the I Love Lucy episode where she and Ethel are working in the chocolate factory?

Think of the conveyor belt as the last mile common carriage (aka road), the chocolates as packets and Ethel and Lucy could be considered a router. The minute Lucy starts to put the chocolates on the table in front of her, she is like a buffer and obviously she has a problem.

A chocolate packet storm

Now we can argue that the issue is the wrapper. Maybe like deep packet inspection the value of the manipulation may be overrated.

The flow problem is valid. That should be the discussion, but here is the catch.  Ethel and Lucy clearly are not proficient as routers go; their best effort is not particularly the best “best effort.”

How should we measure best effort? Who should pay for the improvement of the service and if there is no payment is there still an obligation? What should those criteria be?

I come away with a generally favorable view that the last mile is carriage and worthy of oversight. I have a generally unfavorable view of packet pushers that already spend money on connectivity in data centers claiming that carriage costs are not valid. If Uber were to start enabling video of the driver’s route rather than a map, it would be somewhat similar to stream of chocolates that Lucy and Ethel can’t manage.

If we want a better carriage, we should make the agenda about what the obligation is for best effort.  Is it More Lucy and Ethel (routers)? Or is it more conveyor belts (bandwidth and alternate paths), or an agreed-to flow of chocolates (best effort packet through-put)?

We should not be saying that all packets should be neutral, because candidly that is not the way we think. If I am hungry, I want pizza. If I am stranded, I want Uber. If I order a pizza for home delivery while I am waiting for Uber to pick me up, I may have to re-examine my priorities.

Edited by Rory J. Thompson

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