On Level 3's blog yesterday, the topic was "chicken" as it relates to traffic interconnection, net neutrality, and the last mile. The chicken part was in relation to the game Level 3 says some last mile operators are playing when it comes to upgrading their interconnections with other network operators. It's a nice analogy that reminds us all how easy it would be for runaway egos to bust the internet these days if we let it.
If there's any doubt that the network neutrality battleground has moved upstream, it ought to be gone by now. By looking to recoup some costs while bypassing the need for silly things like interfering with specific traffic, network operators that fought against the FCC's net neutrality regulations can do battle in the murky world of peering and transit where those regulations did not even try to apply. Comcast's dispute with Level 3 a few years ago was an early case, and the Netflix/Cogent/Verizon news recently was another, but there are more we don't hear about - or haven't yet.
That doesn't mean it's evil necessarily, because in the world of peering and transit there have always been shifts in the balance of power. Who should pay who to send bits where? If the last mile operators flex its muscles on the top of the hill, those who used to flex theirs can't really complain too much. As long as the system works, that is... meaning as long as the deals made aren't fair and thereby damage investment in other parts of the global internet infrastructure.
So, how do we make sure this process stays fair? Do we ask regulators to step in and work their magic? I rather doubt we'll get anywhere that way and even if we did it might not be as useful as we might think. But maybe there's a better way...
It's the same way that network neutrality has really been enforced these past five years, through public scrutiny. Let's make it all public. Take peering and transit, and open it to public review - not entirely but in some form where we can monitor the bits and the money that changes hands. I'm not saying it should be rigid tariffs or try to reproduce legacy regulation in any way, but surely we can find some metrics that would work for the purpose that wouldn't be a huge burden for network operators of all types to collect and report. Bit-miles, traffic ratios, other stuff, I don't care -- you tell me. Or since nobody likes to work under a microscope perhaps we only make things public when there's an unresolvable dispute, where the side claiming unfairness can threaten to turn on the spotlights.
Just a little transparency would let us channel the outrage to where there is abuse, while still letting internet infrastructure evolve without ham-handed intervention -- the way it always has. Where the market is limited and abuse is a valid fear, visibility is the only real cure. And perhaps along the way we'll all learn a few things about how all our bits really traverse the world's fiber.
That's my game, I call it "Naked Chicken". It's just like chicken, except neither side has clothes and there are bleachers. Anybody up for it? Nah, I didn't think so.
Let the people be the watchdogs. We know how to bark, and maybe even bite when we have to. And we don't get gourmet cupcakes delivered to our office inside the Beltway by lobbyists. Let us watch.
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