• September 21, 2009

    FCC Formally Backs Net Neutrality

    "The Internet’s creators didn’t want the network architecture — or any single entity — to pick winners and losers." Julius Genachowski, FCC Chairman, September 21, 2009
    In an address to the Brookings Institution earlier today, the chair of the Federal Communications Commission, Julius Genachowski, threw his full support behind the principles of Net Neutrality. During his speech, Genachowski actually expanded the boundaries of the Net Neutrality debate to include all broadband connection devices, including "smart-phones" such as the iPhone and Blackberry. Delivering on one of President Obama's campaign promises, the FCC chair said he was going to formally codify the "four principles" in order to preserve an open and democratic Internet. Noting the importance of the web for economic growth and stability, Genachowski appears to prefer to err on the side of consumer rights on virtually every net neutrality issue. At first glance, the concept of Net Neutrality is about ensuring full and fair access to the Internet for everybody and for all legal data. Advocates suggest rules need to be put in place to prevent a multi-tiered environment with ISPs assigning access to premium content or bandwidth based on deals made with other businesses. Imagine the Internet run like AOL used to be to get a grasp of the world which the pro-neutrality camp fears. While having few problems with premium content, net neutrality proponents want to ensure you and me and everyone can access that content without impediment. Opponents of Net Neutrality believe that over regulation will stifle network innovation and impede expansion of broadband services by making both economically unfeasible. Imagine being that nice guy who does all that nice stuff for a girl who only wants to be your friend. Though it's rather heart-wrenching, that's an approximation of the direction anti-neutrality businesses see their relationships with consumers evolving in. Below the surface however, a slew of moral, ethical, and business issues serve to make an all encompassing definition of Net Neutrality very difficult to write. The term, Net Neutrality is used to cover a lot of territory. The most well known cases tend to evolve around the throttling of peer-to-peer network activity by ISPs, often during times of network congestion. Some argue that this is a form of data-discrimination. Other examples have involved the degradation of bandwidth used by competing or disruptive technologies, the ways ISPs control and enhance rates of data-flow, and the extent to which ISPs communicate with and inform consumers. Net Neutrality means a number of different things to increasingly diverse numbers of people and interests. The debate seems to boil down to two basic camps. Those who make content, or make money from collecting content tend to favor net neutrality provisions. Those who transmit content or make components for the transmission of content tend to oppose it. Since it is an all-or-nothing sort of issue, there is not a lot of middle ground to settle in. Consumer rights advocates, major Internet advertisers, webmasters, content creators, social networking applications, web publishers and the vast majority of the founders of the Internet tend to find themselves on the side of Net Neutrality. To this camp, the Internet and the Web are like oceans with clear rights of navigation for all. Large ISPs, component manufacturers, business lobbies, libertarian groups, and at least one of the founders of the Internet tend to be against Net Neutrality. In a 2007 interview, Bob Kahn, the co-inventor of the TCP/IP protocol is quoted saying, "...net neutrality is a slogan" that could ultimately end up fragmenting the Internet as it removes a maker's control over the Internet devices they created. To this camp, the Internet and the Web are like oil fields with a finite supply of energy to exploit. In his speech to the Brookings Institution, Genachowski supported the idea that consumers have the right to use technologies of their choosing, provided those technologies do not harm the greater network. Further to that, Genachowski also extends protection to disruptive technologies such as Skype saying networks can not throttle bandwidth based on the use of a specific application. In a well known case from Canada a major ISP, Shaw Cable Systems, intentionally degraded signal to competing VOIP services. He also extends greater protection to consumers of ISP services by mandating the ISPs explain techniques and technologies used to manage network traffic. Many ISPs use deep-packet inspection techniques to determine the content of individual web-packets delivered across their networks but often fail to first inform the consumer. (In their defense, it is very difficult to understand deep-packet-sniffing and when consumers don't fully understand the use of a technology, they often misunderstand the intent.) While the announcement marks a major victory for Net Neutrality advocates, a devil load of details will be articulated as the FCC's policies are written. The FCC's chairman has set an ambitious agenda and will certainly feel the fullest weight of some of the enormous number of lobbyists on both sides of the issue.