A Parking Lot in Downtown San Francisco and the Free and Open Internet

In my experience, if a resource is 1) valuable, 2) has no fee, 3) is in limited supply and 4) open to use, inevitably it will get abused. Its available capacity and liquidity will sooner or later drop to near zero.

That’s just human nature. For example, if there is a parking lot (=valuable) in downtown San Francisco (=limited supply) which is free to park (=no fee) and doesn’t have any time limit such as “free to park up to 2 hours” (=open to use), inevitably it will be full all the time. People will come in the morning and leave their cars there for the whole day — why not? It’s free and no time limit. If I pull my car out to run a few errands, I’m afraid my slot will be taken immediately and I won’t find a slot when I come back. Instead, I better put a folded bicycle in the trunk. I can ride the bicycle around in downtown, so that I can park my car there throughout the day for free.

This actually happened for real in my workplace, for more than once. The pattern was:

  • We had a test cluster on which people can create virtual machines to run their testing (=valuable resource)
  • The test cluster was already paid for by our team budget, so everyone in the team can use it for free (=no fee)
  • The test cluster wasn’t big enough for everybody to use freely, nor could we increase the capacity (=limited supply)
  • In the beginning, we didn’t apply any policy (=open to use)

What happened very soon was that the test cluster was full and remained full. We found that people just didn’t delete their virtual machines after their testing was done. The behavior was self-enforced because the fewer people release their virtual machines, the harder to get a new virtual machine. Everybody suffered, though we repeatedly told everybody “please use it responsibly and be considerate to other’s need”.

At last, we set up the quota and time limit: each one can have up to N virtual machines and it requires manager approval to get more than that; each virtual machine will be automatically deleted after X days unless explicitly renewed. That solved the availability and liquidity problem and no one complained about not having a “free and open” test cluster.

This is why there won’t be a “free and open” Internet without fees or quota. This is why President Obama’s rules won’t help, if not make things worse. In his statement today the net neutrality, he put forward a few rules including:

  • No blocking
  • No throttling
  • No paid prioritization

Internet bandwidth is a valuable resource and in limited supply. To avoid what happened to the parking lot in downtown San Francisco and my team’s test cluster, we have to do one way or another: either set some quota (blocking/throttling), or charge some fees (paid prioritization). Valuable resource + limited supply + no fee + open to use = no one can use.

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