No cash for CASH

For those following along with our previous adventures with the prodnoses of Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) their 2014 accounts make an entertaining read, with not a little schadenfreude.

Deprived of the £100K that our friends at the Marcela Trust sent in their direction in 2013, via OMC Investments, their fairly steady expenditure rate of £150K per year is maintained this year, but since their income was £30K rather than £140K they ended up with a £120K deficit in spending, eroding their capital down to £766K. At this rate, in 6-7 more years they will be out of funds and out of luck. It seems that no-one really likes CASH or wants to give them money in any quantity - at least, not while the world is watching.

The note in the "Movement in funds" section on p.33 is amusing:

The designated fund will provide working capital to the charity to enable it to continue its unique activities whilst the trustees implement their fundraising strategy.
Yes, I'd be interested in what that strategy is going to be. Are they going to try to tap government funds in the classic fakecharity game - lobby the government to give them money to lobby the government? I'll be watching the CASH website and their subsidiary organisation Action on Sugar to see what they're up to.


Net neutrality - be careful what you wish for

I'm driving my forehead into an ever-deepening dent on my desk in despair at the news that the US Federal Communications Commission has approved new rules governing net neutrality in the USA. This may seem like the sort of news that a progressive geek like your humble bloghost would welcome, but it turns out to involve some inconvenient wrinkles.

The EFF, guardians of liberty, were originally cheering on behalf of net neutrality. Then, 2 days ago, they started to get a little concerned with some of the details being proposed by the FCC:

Unfortunately, if a recent report from Reuters is correct, the general conduct rule will be anything but clear. The FCC will evaluate "harm" based on consideration of seven factors: impact on competition; impact on innovation; impact on free expression; impact on broadband deployment and investments; whether the actions in question are specific to some applications and not others; whether they comply with industry best standards and practices; and whether they take place without the awareness of the end-user, the Internet subscriber.
In essence, the proposed rules for Net Neutrality gave the FCC - a US government agency, headed by a former lobbyist for the cable and wireless industry - an awfully wide scope for deciding whether innovations in Internet delivery were "harmful" or not. There's no way that this could go horribly wrong, surely?

Broadband in the USA

Now, let's start with the assertion that there is an awful lot wrong with broadband provision in the USA currently. It's a lot more expensive than in the UK, it's almost always supplied by the local cable TV provider, and in general there is very little if any choice in most regions. See the broadband provider guide and choose min, max of 1 - there's an awful lot of the USA with monopoly provision of wired high-speed internet.

The dominant ISPs with high-speed provision are Comcast, AT+T, Time Warner, CenturyLink and Verizon. It would be fair to say that they are not particularly beloved. Comcast in particular is the target of a massive amount of oppprobium: type "Comcast are " in your favourite search engine, and you get autocompletion suggestions including "liars", "crooks", "criminals". American broadband is approximately twice the price of British, and you generally get lower speeds and higher contention ratios (you share a pipe of fixed size with a lot of people, so if your neighbours are watching streaming video then you're out of luck). As effective monopolies, ISPs were in a very powerful position to charge Internet services for streaming data to their customers, as last year's Comcast-Netflix struggle showed - and it ended with Netflix effectively forced to pay Comcast to ship the bytes that Netflix customers in Comcast regions were demanding.

Google's upstart "Google Fiber" offering of 1 Gbps (125 MB per second) fiberoptic service tells a story in itself. It's targeting a relatively short list of cities but has been very popular whenever it opened signups. It has spurred other broadband providers to respond, but in a very focused way: AT+T is planning to offer 1Gbps service, but only in Google Fiber's inaugural area of Kansas City which is impressive in its brazenness. Other community-based efforts are starting to bear fruit, e.g. NAP is proposing their Avalon gigabit offering in part of Atlanta, Georgia. However, most of the USA is still stuck with practical speeds that have not changed noticeably in half a decade. Entrenched cable ISPs have spent plenty of money on lobbyists to ensure that states and cities make it expensive and difficult for newcomers to compete with them, requiring extensive studies and limiting rights to dig or string fiber-optic cable to residential addresses.

So there's clearly a problem; why won't Net Neutrality solve it?

The ISP problem

Net neutrality essentially says that you (an ISP) can't discriminate between bytes from one service and bytes from a different service. Suppose you have two providers of streaming Internet movies: Netflix and Apple iTunes. Suppose Comcast subscribers in rural Arkansas pay Comcast for a 20Mbps service, easily sufficient for HD streaming video. Comcast controls the network which ends at their customers' home routers, and when it receives a TCP or UDP packet (small chunk of data) from their customers they will look at its destination address and forward it either to its destination - e.g. a server in the Comcast network - or to one of the other Internet services they "peer" to. Peering is a boundary across which Internet entities exchange Internet data. When data comes back across that boundary with the address of one of their customers, Comcast routes the data to the customer in question. So far, so good.

Now the customer is paying Comcast for their connection, so it's not really reasonable for Comcast to force them to pay more for more data above and beyond the plan they've agreed. If you've got a 20 Mbps connection, you expect to be able to send / receive 20Mbps more or less forever. Comcast might have a monthly bandwidth cap beyond which you pay more or get a lower speed, but that should be expressed in your plan. Comcast might weight certain kinds of traffic lower than others, so that when 20 people are contending for use of a 100 Mbps pipe traffic which is less sensitive to being dropped (e.g. streaming video) is dropped more often than more sensitive traffic (web page fetches), but that's all reasonable as long as you know how many people you're contending with and what the rules are.

Streaming video is one kind of traffic that's problematic for ISPs: it requires very little bandwidth from the paying customer. They send an initial message "I want to see this video" and then a low volume of following messages to control the video stream and assure the video streaming service that someone really is still watching it. From Comcast's point of view, though, they have a large amount of latency-sensitive traffic coming into their network from a peering point, so they need to route it through to the destination user and use up a large chunk of their network capacity in the process. If lots of people want to watch videos at once, they'll have to widen the incoming pipe from their peer; that will involve buying extra hardware and paying for its associated management overhead so that they can handle the traffic, as long as they are the limiting factor. (Their peer might also be the limiting factor, but that's less likely).

So the more data users stream concurrently, the more it costs Comcast. This can be mitigated to some extent by caching - storing frequently used data within the Comcast network so that it doesn't have to be fetched from a peer each time - and indeed this is a common strategy used by content delivery networks like Akamai and video streaming firms like YouTube. They provide a bunch of their own PCs and hard disks which Comcast stores inside its datacenters, and when a user requests a resource (video, image, music file, new operating system image) which might be available in that cache they will be directed to the cache computers. The cache will send the data directly if it's available; if not, it will download it and send it on, but store it locally so if someone else requests it then it's ready to send to them directly. This has the effect of massively reducing the bandwidth for popular data (large ad campaigns, "Gangnam Style" videos, streaming video releases), and also increases reliability and reduces latency of the service from the user's perspective, but costs the provider a substantial overhead (and operational expertise) to buy, emplace and maintain the hardware and enable the software to use it.

The non-neutral solution

If Netflix aren't willing or able to pay for this, Comcast is stuck with widening their pipe to their peers. One might argue that that's what they're supposed to do, and that their customers are paying them to be able to access the Greater Internet at 20Mbps, not just Comcast's local services. But Comcast might not see it this way. They know what destination and source addresses belong to Netflix, so they might decide "we have 100 Gbps of inbound connectivity on this link, and 50 Gbps of that is Netflix video streaming source addresses at peak. Let's reduce Netflix to a maximum of 20 Gbps - at peak, any packet from Netflix video streaming sources has a 60% chance of being dropped - and see what happens."

You see where the "neutrality" aspect comes in? Comcast is dropping inbound traffic based solely on its source address - what company it comes from. Only internal Comcast configuration needs to be changed. From the customer's point of view, Netflix traffic is suddenly very choppy or even nonfunctional at peak times - but YouTube, Facebook, Twitter etc. all work fine. So Netflix must be the problem. Why am I paying them money for this crap service? (Cue angry mail to Netflix customer support).

Net Neutrality says that Comcast can't do this - it can't discriminate based on source or destination address. Of course, it's not really neutral because ISPs might still blacklist traffic from illegal providers e.g. the Pirate Bay, but since that's normally done at the request of law enforcement it's regarded as OK by most.

The problem

The USA has handed the Federal Communications Commission, via the "general conduct" rules, a massive amount of control of and discretion in the way in which ISPs handle Internet traffic. It presumes that the FCC has the actual best interests of American consumers at heart, and is intelligent and foresighted enough to apply the rules to that effect. Given the past history of government agencies in customer service and in being effectively captured by the industries they are supposed to regulate, this seems... unwise.


Failing to listen to the sounds of Chinese silence

I was moved by an interesting yet flawed piece by John Naughton in the Grauniad, analysing the kinds of censorship applied by the Chinese government:

So they [researchers] clicked on the URLs associated with a sample of posts and found that some – but not all – had vanished: the pages had disappeared from cyberspace.
The question then was: what was it about the "disappeared" posts that had led to them being censored? And at that point the experiment became very interesting indeed. First of all, it confirmed what other researchers had found, namely that, contrary to neoliberal fantasy, speech on the Chinese internet is remarkably free, vibrant and raucous. But this unruly discourse is watched by a veritable army (maybe as many as 250,000-strong) of censors. And what they are looking for is only certain kinds of free speech, specifically, speech that has the potential for engendering collective action – mobilising folks to do something together in the offline world.

The study quoted is indeed interesting, and highlights one particular and significant aspect of Chinese censorship. Where Naughton fails, though, is in failing to note the unseen, and this is picked up by CiF commentator steviematt:

The Harvard research and Gary King's opinion are both flawed beyond belief.
It only factors the number of posts that were originally published and then disappeared over the course of weeks and months. It ignores the fact that most posts that are critical never have a chance of passing through the filters in the first place.
Indeed, Naughton fails to notice that many of the websites that the West takes for granted in being able to express their opinions are completely blocked in China. Within China, sites like Twitter and Facebook are essentially completely unavailable. YouTube: no chance. You can get to a limited set of Google sites (search and maps are on-and-off accessible in my experience), but it's very iffy. Blogger seems completely blocked. Bing search seems to work fine though. Why is that?

It's because if you are a western firm who wants to provide an Internet site within China, you have to partner with a Chinese company and accept the conditions of serving users within China - key in this is agreeing to provide identity information of your users (source IP addresses , times logged on etc.) at the "request" of the government. The case of Yahoo and the Chinese dissident Shi Tao is illuminating:

According to a letter Amnesty International received from Yahoo! (YHOO), and Yahoo!'s own later public admissions, Yahoo! China provided account-holder information, in compliance with a government request, that led to Shi Tao's sentencing.
Jerry Yang, then-CEO of Yahoo, got roasted by Congress for providing this information when this story came out. Truth be told, though, he really didn't have much choice - Yahoo had presumably agreed to these conditions when it started serving China-based users. If you don't want to play ball with those conditions, and it seems that Google, Twitter and Facebook don't, you're going to be serving outside China and prone to getting blocked by the Great Firewall.

So when Naughton comments "only some kinds of activities are blocked" it's actually in the context of "only some users are willing to discuss these kinds of activities on sites where they know the government has the right to waltz in and demand their details at any time" (before presumably visiting them at home and offering them an extended stay at a pleasant little camp out in the country, for a year or ten.)

Rumours suggest that Facebook might announce something aimed at Chinese users but it's not obvious how they're going to deal with the existing restrictions. Still, Zuckerberg's a smart guy and doesn't seem to be an obvious patsy for the Chinese regime, so it's possible he's got something clever up his sleeve. Stay tuned.