Net Neutrality, Time to Take Sides

September 18th

In the modern equivalent of a story moving on the wire after the close of the stock market, The Wall Street Journal reported that the new FCC Chairman, Julius Genachowski, is expected to outline proposals on Monday to prevent Internet providers from selectively blocking or slowing Web traffic. In Washington buzzword speak this is a “net neutrality” bombshell.

This is one of those issues where someone throws a pebble into a clear pool and the ripples expand forever. You have to decide whether you are going to think about this in terms of this month (Asian nations joining China in limiting internet access), this year (Internet companies agreeing to make it possible for China to limit Internet use and even more insidiously hand over the list of users) or this decade or two.

There was the battle between the phone and the cable companies over who would control network email services (before Telecom Reform in 1996) and then there was the fencing that was taking place over data traffic versus analogue voice before Judge Harold Green had broken up AT&T (1984) or …

Reading the story in the Wall Street Journal can make it tough to figure out who the good guys are. Are the good guys the ones who fight heavy-handed network blockers? Or are they the ones who are fighting government intrusion in the private marketplace? Are the good guys protecting us from network slowdowns from mobile video file sharing? It can give you a headache.

Balancing equities and regulating bandwidth are of course what governments do. So it would seem that with due concern for the technical issues involved, it should be hard to vote against the opportunities that serious net neutrality would create. No doubt the companies involved have some issues here. But the extraordinary social value that gets created when Internet services are allowed to innovate has been demonstrated. Net neutrality could be the next milestone.

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  1. JoshR says:

    I am eagerly anticipating this, if for no other reason than so we can finally define what Net Neutrality actually is. No one seems to know, even the technology nerds over at Slashdot.

    Should we consider the US internet to be ‘neutral’ now? As one of the commenters over at /. wrote: “Why is it that if Comcast decided to block Skype, people would be up in arms, but a cell phone provider blocking the same service is considered legitimate?”

    But in my mind it goes a lot further than that! I count seven parties that can limit your access on any given day. Sometimes it’s 1) the State (eg Iran), or 2) the provider (Google voluntarily limits its service in China), or it’s 3) the backbone network (they charge for traffic, I heard Google was paying $1m/day for YouTube traffic), or it could be 4) the ISP (who can throttle bandwidth, deny access to protocols such as Skype above, and even modify content), sometimes it’s 5) the local network (such as the office that denies workers access to ‘timewasters’ like Twitter and Gmail), or it could be 6) a parent (blocking access to ‘unsafe’ sites such as MySpace) and finally 7) the device manufacturer (eg Apple denying the Google Voice app).

    To make matters worse, the infringement doesn’t even have to happen in real time. Most offices will keep logs of internet traffic for use in a wrongful termination suit, and ISPs and the State governments keep similar logs as a deterrent to illegal activities online.

    I’m curious to know which of these ‘providers’ will be targeted by new legislation. I think we can safely rule out #1 and #6!

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