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Net Neutrality a thing?

For a while you may have been hearing the phrase “net neutrality” being bounced around. It’s an odd concept, but an important one. If you already understand the concepts, then you can skip a bit. Otherwise you might like a little explanation.

Arial photo of a complext network of highway intersections
The Tom Moreland Interchange in DeKalb County, Georgia, a four level stack with frontage roads

If we think of the Internet as a roadway, there is not really any such thing as a public highway system. All roads are privately owned and people pay tolls to drive on them. The infrastructure is such that they are all interconnected and there are agreements in place that let you access the various roadways once you’ve paid your toll… but none of it is really free.

Right now, you basically pay and can go anywhere you want. You can stream video, read documents, conduct business transactions. Outside of certain legalities, there are not restrictions on how you get to use your roadway. You pay your fee, you access the road. You go about your business.

However, the infrastructure owners are starting to notice trends. Consumers are doing a lot on the Internet. Traffic is getting congested. Infrastructure is getting clogged. Important commercial customers are potentially getting bogged down by Sunday drivers. It’s all moving in directions that were not anticipated. It’s becoming difficult to keep up with demands.

Building infrastructure is expensive. It eats into the bottom line. However, technology provides some other answers. Prioritize the traffic on your road based on who they are and what they pay. Traffic can be analyzed and people who are “lower class” customers can be put in the slow lane while the higher paying people are given a police escort.

On the face of it, there are some reasonable arguments, but the devil is always in the details. Who gets to decide who has the most important reason to be on the road? Is it the person streaming a live concert that is making millions of dollars in revenue or the doctor who is doing informal teaching to colleagues about a procedure he is developing? Is it the sanctioned, sponsored news, or the independent reporter?

Vehicle being searched by security forces

Would you tolerate having to file a travel plan when you went somewhere and have your car searched to verify your truthfulness…then to have your travel restricted in various ways because of who you were and what you wanted to do?

There’s lots more on the subject all over the place. Wikipedia is as good a place to start as any to start finding resources.

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The analogies wear down a bit, but the upshot is that net neutrality is about ensuring that the Internet superhighway is equally available to everyone without picking favorites. I should be able to buy a connection and do with it what I will, without any content prioritization. (Prioritization essentially amounts to user profiling, by tracking and categorizing what you do, and censorship, by making information deemed “low value” harder to access.)

The FCC are the ones who govern the communications enforcement in the networking space. They have laws about the communications devices and how they are used. Yesterday, Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the FCC, wrote a an opinion post for WIRED where he addressed net neutrality. It’s a good read and shows signs that his organization will address some of these issues. I see it as a good sign.

It is true that wealthy individuals and corporations will always have the biggest, fastest roadways on the Internet. They can just go buy it. (We could too if we pooled community resources together, but that’s a whole other issue.) The important thing is that everyone gets what they pay for and that the infrastructure doesn’t begin playing favorites with the information. I’m curious to see what happens next.

Ubuntu, coming to a drone near you

I just read David Meyer’s article, “Robots embrace Ubuntu as it invades the internet of things” on It describes Canonical’s continued progress in the device space.

I’ve used Ubuntu as my desktop system for many years now, and I genuinely like it as an environment. I don’t use their Unity interface, but my daughter does. (My wife uses classic GNOME and I use a Cairo-GNOME hybrid.

Of course, drones, phones, fridges and other “black box” sorts of devices don’t use desktops. They deal with the underlying core of operations where it gets pretty ugly. That’s where I like Ubuntu as a base. One of my favorite aspects of Ubuntu, and why I tend to install it first for friends and family, is it’s usage of Debian package system. This package system is pretty resilient and does a great job of pulling together requirements for you. I install something and the system automatically says “Hey! You need all this other stuff to make that run. Do you want to install that too?” It also does a good job of cleaning up after itself, removing things that are no longer needed.

Ubuntu enhances this by having a good, reliable set of repositories, including commercial partners. They make it easy to turn off anything that is intellectually encumbered if your goal is to have a more open system. They also make it easy to add new repositories so you can keep up with your favorite packages that have not been included in their official list. It’s automation has been good. When I set up a system for a non-techie person and tell it to keep itself up to date, it generally does a good job of it on its own.

Now, I know that these kinds of things are all human conveniences, and that the needs of a drone or other device will be different. But just like Alamo Drafthouse has tapped into what I enjoy about seeing movies, Canonical has tapped into what I enjoy most about using my computer. I’m confident that this understanding will translate well into other areas and that having devices, desktops and servers that share that base will create some good benefits. I wish them well.

All that said, Linux is Linux. Any devices running it, no matter what flavor, is a good thing.