I’ve been dragging my feet but it’s time to catch up on Net Neutrality. Last week, the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008 was introduced in the House and Comcast filed with the FCC defending their policy of purposely slowing down some traffic on its network, including some music and movie downloads to ensure better flow of traffic over its network. (Comcast’s FCC filing was in response to petitions by the consumer group Free Press and the online video provider Vuze, which claimed that the cable company was abusing its control over its network to impede video competition.)
On February 13 Representatives Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) introduced the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008, to “establish broadband policy and direct the Federal Communications Commission to conduct a proceeding and public broadband summits to assess competition, consumer protection, and consumer choice issues relating to broadband Internet access services, and for other purposes.”
For a librarian, I don’t actually have strong feelings on Net Neutrality. I can see both sides. From the consumer end of course, I think we should all have access to information equally. But I don’t know that we have it now. Right now some companies can pay the big bucks to advertise all over the Internet or hire people to help them do well with search engines – and some can’t. Some neighbors hog bandwidth and slow us all down. (More with some technologies than others, clearly.) Now prioritizing traffic might add yet another barrier – but it’s not the first barrier to information. That leads me to think – if companies such as search engines and content providers (web site owners) can profit from diverting traffic to a site, shouldn’t the ISPs (be it wireless, fiber, cable, copper…) be able to capitalize on it too? After all they are the ones who keep the lines working; that requires large investments. (And wouldn’t we like to encourage more investment?)
Mostly I feel like we’re rearranging the chairs on the Titanic when possibly a better answer is to overpower the problem with a lot more bandwidth.
So there’s my wishy-washy two cents on the matter. Here is what some smarter (or at least more decisive) people are saying. I’m going to assume that most people reading this know the issue. (If not you can check out Wikipedia’s definition.) I’ve tried to distill the notes as much as possible so the quotes below and really paraphrased quotes.
Section 1: gives the title “The Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008.”
Section 2: Makes two findings. (1) The Internet is super nifty! (2) It is super nifty because it is so open and free, and everyone depends on it remaining open and free.
Section 3: Here things start to get a bit interesting. It amends the Communications Act of 1934 as Amended (our favoritest Act in the whole wide woooooorld — if you do telecom law) to have an explicit federal policy of keeping the internet open, interconnected, a major source of diverse ideas and First Amendment freedoms, by adopting and enforcing baseline protections to guard against unreasonable discriminatory favoritism for, or degradation of, operators based upon its source, ownership or destination on the Internet.
Section 4: Makes the FCC go out and compile a report on whether its broadband policy is doing the job of protecting the openness of the Internet. The statute mandates very specific things the FCC has to answer to try to keep the FCC from weaseling out of its responsibilities and findings (and, when it tries to go all weasel-ly and pretend that everything is hunky-dory and therefore there is no need for regulation, it will be painfully obvious to anyone who cares). It also requires the FCC to get out of Washington and do a whole bunch of public hearings around the country, so we can expect to develop a pretty juicy record.
C|net News Blog gives a nice comparison of the new bill to previous Net Neutrality legislation:
The old bill decreed that broadband operators have certain duties: not blocking or degrading content, not prioritizing some applications over others, and not imposing “surcharges” for premium placement, to name a few. Violators would have been subject to penalties. A pending Senate bill, which hasn’t yet seen any action in this session of Congress, takes a similar approach.
The new Markey-Pickering bill, by contrast, proposes adding four broadband policy statements to existing federal communications law. Those statements build upon a set of broadband policy principles that the Federal Communications Commission adopted years ago, including recommendations that the government allow consumers to reach the lawful content and applications of their choice and hook up whatever devices they please, provided that they don’t harm the network.
The advantages for net neutrality proponents are: (1) the policy statements would have symbolic value which proponents could try to exploit in court rooms, hearing rooms and editorial boards, and (2) another year or two of wasteful and duplicative process at the FCC would keep the net neutrality issue front and center for a while longer.
The idea that network neutrality legislation will result in capacity armageddon has long been the argument of the incumbent operators (and that of their many varied PR extensions). Neutrality supporters in contrast argue that if something isn’t done, the future consists of major corporations throttling, crushing and derailing any content that competes with their own content interests (which for a company like Comcast, are substantial).
Obviously the wild card in this new round of network neutrality fisticuffs is the Presidential election. A Presidential candidate such as Barak Obama, who supports network neutrality, could appoint a more progressive network neutrality advocate to lead the FCC, which would vastly change the agency’s policy direction. The FCC’s current policy direction, for those napping, is to essentially do what AT&T and Verizon tell them to do (nothing).
For the Proposed Legislation
Save the Internet will help you contact your legislator to support the legislation.
The legislation gives hope to the millions of Americans who have called for action to ensure that the public — not phone and cable companies — control the fate of the Internet.
“Americans need to ask themselves: What good is free speech if a handful of powerful corporations have the ability to shut off or slow viewpoints they find objectionable?” said International Brotherhood of Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa. “I applaud Congressman Markey and encourage other union members to stand with the 1.4 million-member strong International Brotherhood of Teamsters.”
Art Brodksy at Public Knowledge
The government and the telecom industry have been down this road before. Once we had the Bell System which maximized control over everything. It was broken up and a competitive industry was launched, only to be crushed by regulators and the telephone companies. Now we have the chance to set ourselves back onto the direction of a policy that created new companies and new opportunities for innovation and new choices for consumers. Or we could put everything back in the hands of a few. As Mr. Berra put it, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
I think Brodsky also does a good job of describing the issue for Comcast. Their beef is with the Peer to Peer (P2P) applications such as BitTorrent, which require fast upload as well as download speeds. Well, the cable guys have just not built their network to handle that – because they were used to the movie-based model. The problem is that the consumers didn’t read the business plan – and they have found new uses. I think that’s an unintended consequence.
IP Democracy seems to focus in on Comcast’s claims that the market will keep them honest.
In its filing, Comcast writes: The self-policing marketplace and blogosphere, combined with vigilant scrutiny from policymakers, provides an ample check on the reasonableness of such [network management] judgments.
I can’t even hazard a guess about the efficacy of relying on a squawky blogosphere to rein in bad corporate behavior (although one could argue that Comcast is in hot water over its P2P policies precisely because the blogosphere fueled rampant criticism of the company). But you have to admit that it’s kind of cool that Comcast thinks bloggers hold tremendous power.
I have to agree completely. I’m going to start blogging more complaints if that’s the way the world it going.
Some major broadband service providers have threatened to act as gatekeepers, playing favorites with particular applications or content providers, demonstrating that this threat is all too real. It’s no stretch to say that such discriminatory practices could have prevented Google from getting off the ground — and they could prevent the next Google from ever coming to be.
Net neutrality is too often painted as just about particular companies’ competing interests, but that’s missing the point. Rather, net neutrality and broadband policy are — and should be — about what’s ultimately best for people, in terms of economic growth as well as the social benefit of empowering individuals to speak, create, and engage one another online using the wide panoply of innovations available to them. In other words, broadband policy should come from the bottom up.
CDT strongly believes that the Internet’s extraordinary success in facilitating independent innovation and speech is directly linked to the fact that any Internet user can provide content and services to any other willing Internet user, without getting permission from any “gatekeeper.”
Against the Proposed Legislation
National Cable & Telecommunications Association (As quoted in Broadcasting & Cable)
“Congestion issues are not unique to cable-broadband networks — they are a constant issue for networks of every type,” the NCTA filing said. “Wireline- and wireless-phone networks, airlines and roads all experience congestion at times of peak usage. And with all of these networks, simply ‘building more’ is not a complete solution. It is in the nature of networks to congest and it is the obligation of network owners to manage that congestion for the benefit of their customers.”
The simple fact is that owners are motivated to manage their networks so that all users are able to gain from the network what they are paying to receive. As service providers find that they can drive greater value from their networks as they no doubt will and should, the environment may change to bring greater value to legitimate consumers. As consumers are willing to pay more for greater protections, for example, then the provider should be allowed to provide these services, say a safer environment for families and the consumer should have the option.
Regulatory bodies should restrain themselves to only those instances where public health and safety requires it, or, rarely, to strengthen competition when new entry into the market is impaired by some factor other than normal costs, and perhaps in some other rare circumstances.
Those who took the risk, invested heavily in building networks, and own them must be allowed to operate them as best serves the needs of their customers. If they do not, then those people will lose their investment. Whether, and how, networks are managed should be a decision exclusively left to the owners of those networks.
Enterprise Networking (Industry Groups Declare War on Net Neutrality Bill)
Its introduction [legislation] revisits the contentious debate over Net neutrality, which has industry groups championing the free market and warning that government intervention threatens to choke off growth and innovation in the Internet economy.
… while I believe that a neutral internet is important to encourage growth and innovation, I worry that any legislation passed to require net neutrality will backfire… So, with that in mind, I should probably be more supportive of Rep. Markey’s newly introduced net neutrality legislation because it’s barely regulatory at all. There’s no mandate and no punishment.
I believe it’s a net positive that broadband ISPs are proactively trying to manage their networks to ensure that legal traffic, generated by paying subscribers, is not adversely affected by the few heavy video file-sharers who diminish the network’s performance for everyone.
To defeat net neutrality, broadband ISPs better sharpen up their PR efforts. Congress is notoriously IQ-challenged and politically-motivated. My cynical belief is that its knee-jerk reaction will always be to do what looks best, rather than what actually is best.
Seems a little vague, don’t you think? Leaves lots of room for government meddling.