War of Internet Net Neutrality: Myth or Threat to the Internet – Freedom, Innovation, Openness?

Internet neutrality (or network neutrality) is the principle that Internet users should be able to access any web content they choose and use any applications they choose, without restrictions or limitations imposed by their Internet service provider(ISP).

It refers to the absence of restrictions or priorities placed on the type of content carried over the Internet by the carriers and ISPs that run the major backbones. It states that all traffic be treated equally; that packets are delivered on a first-come, first-served basis regardless from where they originated or to where they are destined.

Net neutrality essentially levels the playing field for commercial websites, ensuring that a small online bookstore can still receive visitors, even if sites such as Amazon.com or Barnes&Noble.com are statistically more popular. Under the philosophy of net neutrality, individual Internet service providers (ISPs), search engines and major online services like Yahoo, AOL or Google cannot restrict or filter a user’s access to rival companies. For example, AOL cannot prevent one of its subscribers from receiving email from Yahoo accounts…

Supporters of net neutrality suggest that non-profit government control over the Internet would prevent larger commercial websites from completely dominating the marketplace. A government agency similar to the current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would oversee the basic network to prevent the formation of ‘robber barons’, companies who could possibly choke off competition by controlling key points on the Internet transmission network. Countries such as Japan already have Internet access laws based on the principle of net neutrality. Eventually, most countries with Internet access may have to implement laws to protect the current net neutrality concept.

Opponents of net neutrality include cable television companies, major Internet service providers and large commercial websites. They suggest that net neutrality is an unrealistic goal, since other network systems are already controlled by largest contributors and are still able to function fairly. Government control over the Internet’s basic network, opponents argue, would only lead to increased censorship and invasion of privacy. Website owners shouldn’t be legally forced to receive or transmit information from competitors or other websites they find objectionable…

In the articleWho Wins & Loses Under FCC’s Net Neutrality Rules by Stacey Higginbotham writes: The new FCC rules enshrines three principles as the framework for implementing ‘network neutrality’:

  • Transparency for fixed and mobile broadband providers.
  • No blocking for fixed broadband providers in general, while mobile broadband providers can’t block competitive services, although blocking apps is fine.
  • No unreasonable discrimination by fixed broadband providers while mobile broadband providers have to justify their discrimination.

The full order contains many pages of exceptions and justifications that explain what the FCC is trying to do and why, but the primary things the FCC has done with this order are clearly separate the act of providing access to the Internet from the Internet itself, and rejected the idea of a one-size fits all concept of network neutrality. Unfortunately, as it tried to please everyone from consumers to carriers, the FCC has enshrined rules that create different policies which could fragment what people think of as the Internet. Let’s look at those rules.

Transparency: A person engaged in the provision of broadband Internet access service shall publicly disclose accurate information regarding the network management practices, performance, and commercial terms of its broadband Internet access services sufficient for consumers to make informed choices regarding use of such services and for content, application, service, and device providers to develop, market, and maintain Internet offerings.

On the whole, this compromise is good for carriers, because it’s minimally invasive in terms of how they market their services, yet poor for consumers, because it won’t help the average user much, and good for tech-savvy ‘edge service providers’ who will have the information needed to build apps for certain networks.

No Blocking: A person engaged in the provision of fixed broadband Internet access service, insofar as such person is so engaged, shall not block lawful content, applications, services, or nonharmful devices, subject to reasonable network management.

This is good for consumers on fixed broadband networks, good for service providers in general, and bad for ISPs interested in overtly blocking competitive content.

No Unreasonable Discrimination: A person engaged in the provision of fixed broadband Internet access service, insofar as such person is so engaged, shall not unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful network traffic over a consumer’s broadband Internet access service. Reasonable network management shall not constitute unreasonable discrimination.

In general, this section lays out specifically how carriers can manage their networks, which is good for them and good for the FCC, because it sets its framework for how it will rule on future disputes. It’s not great for consumers or web service and device providers, because they will have to go to the FCC and prove the ISP is being unreasonable when problems occur…

In the article “What Happened to Net Neutrality?” by Peter Osnos writes: The net neutrality issue is actually far from being resolved, despite the FCC action. In fact, by reaching what was essentially a compromise decision, the FCC set the stage for another round of contention, almost certain litigation, and possibly a move for congressional action to override the FCC.

What the FCC has done is create a major administrative loophole that enables the providers to determine how those technologies will work — although it does require them to be more transparent in explaining their decisions as they are made. The FCC has determined that the Internet should, in effect, remain open to all on equal conditions…

Josh Silver, Free Press, wrote: “For the first time in the history of telecommunications law, the FCC has given its explicit stamp of approval to online discrimination…. For wireless communications, the rule provides virtually no protections at all. Silver does acknowledge that the FCC actions discourage “unjust and unreasonable” practices. That means that dominant industry players will need to provide data in support of the rationale for their service changes rather than simply imposing them…

In a scathing editorial the Wall Street Journal said: “The FCC’s brazen power grab is already producing a welcome backlash on Capitol Hill. GOP Representative Marsha Blackburn says she’ll introduce legislation to prohibit the FCC from enforcing net neutrality rules.” The stakes are very high. The technology corporations, the communications industry interests, the open access advocates, Congress, and ultimately the courts will have much more to say on the subject…

In the article “Citizen Uprising Over Internet Regulation” by Lori Drummer writes: According to a recent Rasmussen poll, 53% of Americans oppose FCC regulation of the Internet – and only 27% support such regulations.  In fact, support for Internet regulations has plunged by 22% just since June 2008. In January, at the close of the initial comment period, over 32,000 American citizens filed official public comments with the FCC opposing network neutrality.  Then 48,000 individuals voiced similar concerns during the reply comment period. That’s over 80,000 voices saying “no” to bigger government.  Yet the FCC plunges on…

“Increasing federal regulation of the Internet will reduce choice, growth and innovation.” ~ Dick Armey

In the article “Net Neutrality” by The New York Times writes: OnDec. 21, 2010, the FCC approved a compromise that would broadly create two classes of Internet access, one for fixed-line providers and the other for the wireless Net. The new rules are, at best, net semi-neutrality. They ban any outright blocking and any “unreasonable discrimination” of Web sites or applications by fixed-line broadband providers, but they afford more wiggle room to wireless providers like AT&T and Verizon.

They require all providers to disclose what steps they take to manage their networks. In a philosophical break with open Internet advocates, the rules do not explicitly forbid “paid prioritization,” which would allow a company to pay for faster transmission of data.

In the article Save the Internet by Doing Nothing” by Larry Downes writes: The ongoing and seemingly endless fight over “net neutrality” is a good example of bad regulating. For those who have somehow missed this, the FCC has been promising for over a year to implement what it calls “prophylactic” rules to limit how U.S. ISPs can manage network traffic for consumers in the future.

When the rules were finally voted on in late December, the agency was obliged to carve out well over a dozen exceptions to its basic principle of a “neutral” Internet, recognizing that in the last 10 years the technology has evolved to optimize popular applications and resource-intensive content such as voice and video.

There are exceptions for content-delivery networks, IP-based television and voice, and peering arrangements between backbone providers; special rules for nascent and resource-constrained mobile Internet users; and exemptions for e-book readers, game platforms, and coffee shops that offer limited forms of Internet access. The Internet has evolved into a much more complicated place…

In the article “Government’s Internet Grab Begins: FCC Approves Internet Regulations” by Publius writes:  The five-member FCC approved the rules aimed at safeguarding “network neutrality,” the principle that lawful Web traffic should be treated equally. The most controversial of the rules involve the FCC taking a different approach to fixed broadband and mobile broadband, giving wireless providers greater freedom to manage their networks because of limited spectrum.

Under the new rules, both fixed and mobile broadband providers must disclose their network management practices and their commercial terms. Fixed broadband providers are subject to a “no blocking” provision, prohibiting them from blocking lawful content, applications or services. They also may not “unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful network traffic.” Defending the decision not to apply the same rules to wireless networks, the FCC cited the spectrum issue and said mobile broadband is at an “earlier stage” than fixed broadband and is “quickly evolving.”

“I am very concerned that we do not have adequate competition today to act as a restraint on abusive practices on some of the broadband carriers and until we have that kind of competition, we still need oversight and some kind of constraints.” ~ Vint Cerf

In the article “Competition in Broadband Market Ensures Consumers’ Rights” by Brian Gaar writes: U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the FCC doesn’t have authority to require broadband providers to give equal treatment to all Internet traffic on their networks. That was a victory for Comcast Corp., the nation’s largest cable company, which had challenged the FCC’s authority to impose such “network neutrality” obligations on broadband providers.

Supporters of network neutrality have said the policy is necessary to prevent broadband providers from favoring or discriminating against certain Web sites and online services. Detractors of network neutrality have said there’s no need for FCC regulation because competition in the broadband market is robust and government agencies haven’t found any concentration or abuse of that market power. “In other words, there’s nothing for the government to fix”…

Update: On Friday (4/8/11) The House of Representatives voted to reject the Internet “net neutrality” rules that were adopted by the FCC last year (12/21/10). House Republicans, in a 240-179 vote, pushed through a measure disapproving the FCC’s rules.

The outlook for further progress by the Republicans in rolling back the FCC’s actions was uncertain, however. While a similar measure has been offered in the Senate and has 39 co-sponsors, the White House said that President Barack Obama’s advisers would recommend that he veto any such resolution.