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Ask Slashdot: Taking a New Tack On Net Neutrality? 185

An anonymous reader writes "I am the IT director for a large rental property company that owns approximately 15,000 apartments in college towns across America. The board of directors has tasked me with exploring whether we can 'privatize' our network (we provide network access as part of rent in all of our properties) and charge certain commercial entities for access to our residents. Right now the network is more or less open, except that we block access (by court order) to certain sites at the request of various copyright holders. Specifically, they are interested in targeting commercial providers of services directed at college students, such as textbook rental firms, online booksellers, and so on. With approximately 35,000 residents, I guess they are thinking there is a substantial profit to be made here. Personally I don't like it one bit, but I thought I would ping Slashdot for thoughtful opinions. I imagine the phones will start ringing off the hook if students suddenly lose access to places like Amazon.com. I think it has 'bad idea' written all over it. What do you think?"
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Ask Slashdot: Taking a New Tack On Net Neutrality?

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  • Captive? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 01, 2014 @09:48AM (#47140709)

    Are you saying they want to hold them captive to only the sites you want them to go to for profit sake? The kids will just rebel and bring in their own access...

  • site blocking? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by nurb432 ( 527695 ) on Sunday June 01, 2014 @09:49AM (#47140719) Homepage Journal

    Ok, its OT, but since when did US courts start mandating blocking of sites by ISPs?

    Back on topic, it should not be hard to come up with the numbers and present it to management. Forget the 'it will be a bad idea' as it will only make you look disgruntled and biased, all they care about is raw numbers.

  • Re:Captive? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by nurb432 ( 527695 ) on Sunday June 01, 2014 @09:52AM (#47140739) Homepage Journal

    Or just use his bandwidth for vpn access.

  • That would suck (Score:5, Insightful)

    by GreenK ( 33311 ) on Sunday June 01, 2014 @09:55AM (#47140747)

    Do you do the same with the phone system or TV channels? Are commercial numbers or OTA channels (by way of shared antenna) blocked unless there is a kickback of profit? I'd be super pissed finding someone messing with internet, phone, or TV. I think we put up with legal requests if made by court order and for health of the network somewhat but not just for profit.

  • by CrankyFool ( 680025 ) on Sunday June 01, 2014 @09:59AM (#47140765)

    Other people have already commented on the relatively horrifying moral considerations, and some have noted that college students will figure out other ways to get their access. There's one thing that I haven't seen addressed yet: The sites you really care about, the ones that are very very popular, simply don't care about a hostage population of 35,000 students. You see news of Netflix signing deals with Comcast, and some of your management people think they could get Netflix to give them some money as well ... well, they won't. And I can't imagine Chegg (or, HA, Amazon) doing so either. It A) doesn't materially benefit them; and B) starts a horrifying precedent that they'll negotiate with ANYONE.

  • by Entrope ( 68843 ) on Sunday June 01, 2014 @10:09AM (#47140797) Homepage

    You hopefully have some idea of the internal politics about the request -- whether this is something that a majority of the directors strongly wants to do, whether they are just curious, or whether they are leaning towards the idea but could be swayed. Take advantage of that in your response! Be respectful of their intentions, and don't go out of your way to antagonize either supporters or opponents of the idea, but you can either influence the decision or at least register your concerns.

    If you are opposed to the idea (would you ask Slashdot otherwise?), point out the technical and legal considerations in carrying it out. Explain the extent of technical methods to prevent tech-savvy young students from using VPNs and other proxies to access the blocked sites. If this means you need to upgrade your network infrastructure with newer or beefier routers, put a dollar figure on that. Find polls of how consumers view this kind of network filtering, with bonus points if the polls focus on or break out your renters' demographic group, and point out the risk to revenue. If you don't know the regulatory risks and potential tort claims in detail, outline them at a high level and recommend that the company retain legal counsel to advise on those things.

    Because you're the IT guy, they probably view you as a subject matter expert, and you can use that authority to guide their thinking. Just keep in mind the audience for your report, and respond in a way that shows respect for both their level(s) of technical background and their business objectives.

  • You have a boss (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 01, 2014 @10:14AM (#47140821)

    You have been asked to "explore" the possibility. Bluntly put, they are asking your expert opinion. And that should include the following:

    1. Technical challenges: do you need to buy new routers/software? How can you implement billing?

    2. Costs: What additional tech support will be required. You would be derelict in your duty if you don't at least estimate how many phone calls at 20 minutes each at $xxx/hour must be answered.

    3. Tenant response (if any). Would people move out? Would there be a lawsuit (even if you win, lawsuits are expensive...)

    I suggest that you do your job and explore this carefully and honestly. Slashdot is the first step in a brutal assignment (I don't think #1 is trivial). You are a professional...they don't pay you for a political opinion and they need some real technical insight.

    Once you have the entire picture, review it with some board members one on one.

    I bet there is an internal fight in the boardroom and you may find a few people praying you will come back and say: "It will cost $35 million dollars a year, we will face civil litigation for the next five years, and lose 10% of our long term tenants." Of course, if the board figures they will make $350 million a year you will be setting up the network.

  • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Sunday June 01, 2014 @10:27AM (#47140881) Homepage Journal

    Which I guess under the circumstances is pretty predictable.

    I guess where I'd start is with the facts. I'd build a model for how much it would cost, additional staff needed, how much it would bring in, support (and under the circumstances enforcement) costs, what competitors the users could turn to, what the content providers would be willing to pay (if anything) etc. I wouldn't do the new business idea any favors; I'd be objective and hard-nosed about it as possible. If the new service selling your residents to content providers isn't going to be profitable, then the whole idea goes no farther.

    It's a safe bet that the business wouldn't be as profitable as the directors think, simply because it's usually a lot harder to make money in an unfamiliar business than you hoped it would be. It's easy enough in the abstract to believe the new idea will be like printing money, but in fact you're still trying to get people to part with their money, which is going to cost you *your* money. And you think, "Gee we got 15,000 customers, we can charge content providers a pretty penny for access." But is 15000 so large a potential customer base that content providers will adjust to a new way of doing business just for *you*? The big guys like Apple and Netflix and Amazon will probably just laugh at you and leave you twisting slowly, slowly in the wind rather than pay you a dime and invite every two-bit Internet baron to shake them down too. So maybe contact some of the big guys and just ask them how much they'd be willing to pay up and what kinds of services they'd expect in return. Those services are important!!! It's usually the unanticipated support costs that kill gold-egg-laying IT geese.

    As for the small guys, well, they probably don't have much money to cough up. But it'd still be worth contacting some local business that needs access to your 15000 customers and taking them for a test shakedown, just to show you were a good soldier and looked in the sofa cushions for loose change. That kind of pathetic detail often drives home the futility of a hare-brained scheme. People when they come up with a brainstorm like this imagine piles of money-for-nuthin rolling in, so a bit of a reality check is healthy.

    In other words, I would start with due diligence before you contemplate waving the bloody shirt. If, against all expectation, the idea proves to be promising, well I'd discreetly get an idea how your existing customers will react to having some of the Internet sites they need throttled. Remember, you're dealing with the dream of money-for-nuthin. Your job, your responsibility to your employers is to show them what it will really cost them in money, headaches and reputation.

  • Charge them ... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Rambo Tribble ( 1273454 ) on Sunday June 01, 2014 @10:50AM (#47140993) Homepage

    ... and they will flee. If those who provide services are charged more, they will pass those costs to the students. If the students are forced to pay more, they'll do their online ordering on free wifi at the coffee shop, (and look for a cheaper place to live). By providing network access, you are providing a useful service that enhances the appeal of you rentals. Diminish the quality or value of that service, and you diminish the value of your rental.

  • by west ( 39918 ) on Sunday June 01, 2014 @11:01AM (#47141051)

    They're not going to extract money from the sites with millions of visitors. They *may* be able to extract money from sites whose entire revenue generating visitors are college students, like textbook stores.

    I doubt 15,000 students is enough, but it could get very "interesting" if they offered to funnel any visits to a competing text book site to the highest bidder.

    Certainly a maximum evil model. You make paying for Internet access mandatory (i.e. include it in rent), and see how far you can push the students before they consider it worth-while to pay *again* for Internet access. I'm going to guess pretty far.

  • Re:You have a boss (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pla ( 258480 ) on Sunday June 01, 2014 @11:02AM (#47141065) Journal
    You are a professional...they don't pay you for a political opinion and they need some real technical insight.

    First, "just do your job" counts as a piss-poor attitude. If you work as a minimum wage burger flipper, yeah, your employer has no expectation of you to actually think for yourself. If you work as a highly educated IT professional, your employer expects you to understand the current events in your profession, and have an informed opinion on the same.

    That said, although Washington has done its best to make net neutrality into a political issue, it really doesn't have anything to do with politics. It has to do with routing around damage. Net Neutrality means nothing more and nothing less than letting the internet function properly. Violating that at the behest of the highest bidder breaks the proper functioning of the internet. Simple as that.

    The FP author's problem comes entirely from how to explain the above to clueless PHBs who see nothing but dollar signs. And perhaps they do have a clue, and really want to know the downside to what superficially looks like a good idea.

    So the right answer to your question, as others have said - Get them their numbers. Keep the tone factual. And take heart, you get to insert your expert opinions in the selection of appropriate hardware and in raising peripheral issues such as liability for not actually delivering what your renters pay for. Perhaps more than anyone else, you have the power to make this sound like a simple set of QOS rules, or a massive (and correspondingly expensive infrastructure upgrade).
  • Worst idea ever (Score:5, Insightful)

    by JustNiz ( 692889 ) on Sunday June 01, 2014 @11:36AM (#47141229)

    Look at what you're meant to be providing: The access to the internet that they've already paid for, yet you're blocking sites that people would normally get with other ISPs, and so could reasonably expect access to with yours.

    If you go ahead with this, you need to split the internet out of the rent, and specify in your contract up-front that you're blocking exactly those services that sudents are most likely to need. If you don't you're at least morally and also probably legally in the wrong to even advertise it as "internet access included"

    Look at who you are targetting. Students. Exactly the group most likely to:
    a: Need full value for money.
    b: Be filled with (justified) righteous indignation and protest most vocally in a unified way.
    c: Find a way around it (e.g. use coffeeshop internet instead, or more likely find some way to hack it, eg. its acutally simple to find/use a proxy). The fact that thats exactly what people in countries with oppressive governments have to do will be used to make your comapny look like psycopathic idiots.
    d: Fire off a lawsuit driven by legal students (i.e. start a legal war of attrition that not only doesn't cost them anything to fight, they might even get course credits for)
    e: Complain en masse to the universities, who will in turn come down on your company and directly cost you future business.

  • Re:Captive? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Jane Q. Public ( 1010737 ) on Sunday June 01, 2014 @11:38AM (#47141239)

    My read is that their intent is a little more targeted:

    That is what I understood as well.

    (1) The ethics of this are more than just questionable. Service is already part of rent, as they acknowledge. It isn't "free". And the people who run the network now want to double-dip, Comcast-style, by charging the other end of the link as well.

    (2) It is also probably unworkable. For a mere 35,000 students, companies like Amazon and so on would tell them to FOAD.

  • What do I think? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by RJFerret ( 1279530 ) on Sunday June 01, 2014 @11:39AM (#47141253) Homepage

    I think extortion is extortion.

    As a landlord, there are other considerations too, depending if your tenants have the option to not pay for your "lack-of-service", or reduce the rent by the amount alternatives cost them, how it is described to them, and the laws of the individual state, it might even negate their legal requirement to pay full rent.

    Landlords aren't often permitted to prevent tenants from obtaining services. Courts don't tend to favor entities trying to obstruct students' abilities to obtain learning resources.

  • by gavron ( 1300111 ) on Sunday June 01, 2014 @12:09PM (#47141379)

    It's a clever idea (like Comcast wanting Netflix to pay them for what Comcast's own customers pay them already).

    Right now you have 15,000 paying customers. They are almost "captive" in the sense that they get Internet service without having to put any effort into it, so they will continue to be customers so long as you treat them fairly.

    Your customers pay you to give them access to the whole Internet. If you remove parts of the net until someone else double-pays you for that same service, you'll find yourself on the wrong side of a Judge certifying a class-action suit against you for lots of fun things like breach of contract, tortious interference, and possibly material misrepresentation (not fraud - fraud isn't covered by E&I insurance).

    Your safe bet if you wanted to do something this stupid is to give your 15,000 customers FREE Internet with the caveat that some sites may not be reachable unless the other side pays for it. This would be legal, but it won't be financially profitable.

    So you can either retain a sustainable model where you're not getting sued, not extorting third parties, and making money, OR you can extort third parties and likely get sued OR you can move to a financially non-sustainable model.

    As an IT director I guess your job is to figure out how to implement what the Directors wants. As anyone with half a brain I would recommend they make the selection from the choices above before spending a minute researching firewalls and private-dickhead-networks.


  • by I'm New Around Here ( 1154723 ) on Sunday June 01, 2014 @01:05PM (#47141697)

    You also have to keep in mind, there are probably a hundred similar rental companies in the same situation. They probably have an industry group, and can band together to offer a million captive college students across the nation. Now they have the size to get special attention.

  • by mosb1000 ( 710161 ) <mosb1000@mac.com> on Sunday June 01, 2014 @01:25PM (#47141811)

    Your customers definitely believed they would receive internet access paid for from their rent, and if you change that while still holding to a lease it will upset them. Legalistic mumbo jumbo like claiming they paid for "network access" rather than internet access would't actually fly in court if you ever do face a class action lawsuit or FTC complaint about this. The expectation you intended for your customer is what matters, not your ridiculous word games. Most students would probably be too busy with other things to take action over this, so if your tenants really are all students you won't face civil action.

    But this kind of move is bad for other reasons. The bad blood it will generate between you and your customers will incur other kinds of costs as your customers act out passive-aggressively against you, in the form of poor yelp reviews, poor word of mouth, and deliberate property destruction. This is just the kind of short-sighted nonsense I've come to expect from many businessmen. Absolutely no conception of the big picture. Providing this access is very inexpensive, and you said you'd do it when you rented the apartments. By changing it up you are saying to your customers that you don't value their time and that you don't take them seriously. You just want to use them to extort money from someone else.

    Moreover, this action is not sustainable. If you and enough others to this, you will be seeing net neutrality and other consumer protection regulations in the future as a result. Most college students don't stay in college forever.

  • by Noah Haders ( 3621429 ) on Sunday June 01, 2014 @01:27PM (#47141823)
    You will piss them off by saying you think it's a bad idea. The best thing to do is research other examples where a company or college or airport or coffee shop tried to restrict access like this, and what the results were. How much revenue did they get? Were there added costs for more it support? At the end of the day, was it worth it? Call them case studies, executives love that shit.

    I bet that they'll remember that they're a rental company, not a cutting edge ISP, and they don't want to be in the vanguard on this issue. If they are smart businessmen they'll play to their strengths.

Given its constituency, the only thing I expect to be "open" about [the Open Software Foundation] is its mouth. -- John Gilmore