Blown To Bits

A Step Forward for Net Neutrality

Friday, October 23rd, 2009 by Harry Lewis

The Federal Communications Commission voted yesterday issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (press release) to guarantee that the Internet would remain open, predictable, and transparent, as its architects intended it. The Commission had previously endorsed four Internet principles:

  • To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected¬†nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of¬†their choice.
  • To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected¬†nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to run applications and use services of¬†their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement.
  • To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected¬†nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices¬†that do not harm the network.
  • To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected¬†nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to competition among network providers,¬†application and service providers, and content providers.

These principles get at a lot of what has made the Internet succeed, but fail to address the problems that arise when the carriers enter the content industry. The conflicted interests became most apparent when Comcast began to introduce fraudulent packets to slow down the Internet delivery of movies–raising the suspicion that it might be doing so to encourage its Internet subscribers to buy movies from its pay per view cable service instead. We blogged this several times (here for example). Exactly the same situation arose more than a century ago when Western Union cut an exclusive deal with one “wire service,” which to the profit of both would have ended the delivery over Western Union’s telegraph wires of news from alternative sources. That is what started the government’s interest in regulation of telecommunications.

The FCC decided to adopt a fifth principle:

  • Subject to reasonable network management, a provider of broadband Internet access¬†service must treat lawful content, applications, and services in a nondiscriminatory¬†manner.

Of course, that “reasonable” leaves a great deal to the imagination, and that is why this is a policy, not a rule. The rules remain yet to be written, though the Notice gives plenty of information about what to expect.

Because this, like everything, is political, the vote split along party lines, and carried because the FCC is majority Democratic. All five commissioners issued individual statements. The major telecomms, such as Verizon, and stoutly opposed. The Drudge report dramatically screamed, “JULIUS AT FCC WANTS TO ‘REGULATE’ INTERNET,” combining fear-mongering and condescension. Yes, this is an area that needs regulation. You don’t want Verizon to have the legal right to refuse service–either telephone or Internet–to the headquarters of one political party, say, just because it might prefer the policies of the other party.

All the FCC documents are available via the home page,¬†http://www.fcc.gov/. You need to scroll down to the heading “Commission Seeks Public Input on Draft Rules to Preserve the Free and Open Internet.”

As for whether it’s bad for business, I am always astonished that the Republicans so easily forget that the big businesses they so love to protect from regulation were all once small businesses that got started because they saw an opportunity in an open space. Google got started because it could count on how the Internet worked. So did tens of thousands of other businesses, some of which failed, and some of which, like Napster, were closed down as illegal. That’s the way the system should work. The Internet is a fertile place, and in a world where, sadly, most American households have zero, one, or two choices for Internet service, regulation of Internet monopolies and duopolies is needed to help new business ideas can take root.

I also recommend the¬†Berkman Center’s exhaustive study of broadband access around the world, plainly establishing that all the supposed benefits of open and unregulated competition among private entities have left the US, which invented the Internet, a middle of the road country as far as access and speed. The FCC is soliciting comments both¬†on the Net Neutrality proposed rule-making and¬†on the broadband study.

2 Responses to “A Step Forward for Net Neutrality”

  1. Al Pelligra Says:

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