Thoughts on Net Neutrality

Image2I have had a couple of people ask me about Net Neutrality lately so I figured I would do a post on the topic to educate those who might not be familiar. When the internet was created, it was created to be this free and open area where users could share information and interact with other users as they choose. When we use the Internet we typically assume that we will be able to access any website, application, or service that we want to.  For the most part this is how it works today, and what makes that possible is net neutrality…

However, as the Internet continues to develop into this vast frontier of opportunity for large corporations consumed by profit, some applications are not as open or accessible as they once might have been.  A good example was when Comcast decided to restrict access to some popular P2P (peer to peer) networks like BitTorrent because users on their networks that connected to this network were using up large amounts of bandwidth and causing overall slowdowns for everyone on their network. BitTorrent isn’t the only bandwidth intensive service out there either, you might have heard of Netflix, their streaming service has also been mentioned a lot as another popular service that ISP’s might look to restrict access to in the future to reduce the demand on their networks.  The idea behind net neutrality is that users on any ISP should have the same level of access to popular websites, networks, or services as someone who is using another ISP (Internet Service Provider).

There are also some other factors to consider, let’s say that Comcast decides they want to create a social network that will compete with Facebook (hypothetically). Let’s say that Comcast decides that they want to force their users to use their network instead of Facebook so they block access to Facebook for their users. This would also be something that falls under the umbrella of net neutrality.  This might sound like a far fetched idea but as the industry continues to be invaded by large corporations with their eye on profits and no passion for the principles in which the industry was built upon, it could happen.

Let’s also say that an ISP who has managed to monopolize a rural area and there are no other ISP’s competing for their clients.  Well, the ISP w/ the monopoly could easily overcharge for service that has subpar performance when compared on a national scale. The standardization or regulation of service packages would also fall under net neutrality.

Hopefully I have painted a pretty good picture as to what net neutrality is and what it covers.  Well, here’s the part that scares me a little bit.  The FCC will be getting involved to regulate our industry.  No one really knows right now what the involvement of the FCC will mean, but bringing a government agency into a situation isn’t always the best solution to a problem, history has taught us that…

The FCC did provide us a little bit of an overview the other day…

Transparency: Does your ISP slow down its network at peak times? Does it have a usage cap? What about roaming fees? The transparency requirement basically requires broadband providers – fixed and wireless – to be more transparent about their activities. They need to be upfront about how they manage their networks, how well (or poorly) their networks perform, as well as details about their plan options and pricing. Most ISPs would argue that they already do this, but if you disagree, you could conceivably take it up with the FCC.

No Blocking: Much of this net neutrality debate started in 2007 when Comcast was accused of blocking access to P2P networks like BitTorrent because people using BitTorrent on Comcast’s network were slowing down the experience for everyone else. Comcast denied cutting off access completely but said it did delay access to P2P sites during peak times. Under the FCC rules, an ISP would not be able to pick and choose apps or service to block in order to improve network performance. Your ISP would not be able to block access to Netflix’s streaming service, for example, or Xbox Live just because a select few people were clogging the system.

The rules differ slightly on this for fixed versus wireless. Fixed providers cannot block lawful content, apps, services, or “non-harmful” devices, or charge providers of these services for delivering traffic to and from their networks. Wireless providers, meanwhile, cannot block access to lawful Web sites or block apps that compete with their own voice or video telephony services. It does not apply to mobile broadband app stores.

No unreasonable discrimination: A key term being thrown around this week is “network management,” which basically governs how an ISP like Comcast or Time Warner Cable runs their operations. Under the FCC rules, ISPs can manage their networks, but it can’t be “unreasonable” or discriminate against specific applications. In other words, Comcast could slow down its entire network to handle an influx of users, but it could not cut off a specific, bandwidth-hungry service – like BitTorrent or Netflix or Hulu. The FCC acknowledges that network management is necessary to block harmful things – like malware and child porn – from making its way onto ISP networks. Blocking child porn and spam? Good. Blocking Netflix or BitTorrent because it competes with your own service or eats up bandwidth? Bad.

Again, we haven’t seen the actual text of the rules, so what makes something “unreasonable”? In a press conference after Tuesday’s meeting, an FCC official said the agency has included specific language in its rules to define unreasonable network management.

“Generally if there are practices that are targeted for specific use – like controlling spam or malware – [that] would be reasonable,” she said. “Certainly things that appear to be discriminatory would be a red flag.”

Among those things that would probably be unreasonable? Paid prioritization. The whole idea behind net neutrality is that everyone has equal access to the Web; a wealthy company like Amazon should not be able to pay to have their Web site load faster than a mom-and-pop e-commerce site. While this practice of paid prioritization is not strictly banned in the net neutrality rules, the FCC said yesterday that it would likely be deemed unreasonable. “It’s a very dynamic marketplace … so everything would have to be evaluated,” the FCC official said. “I think there’s significant concern about paid prioritization … but it’s not ruled out.”

Can I Report a Violation? If you think your ISP is violating these rules, you can complain to the FCC. The agency has two types of complaint processes: an informal consumer complaint and a more organized formal process.  Going forward, consumers can go to the FCC Web site and file their complaint at no charge. This is mainly for those who suspect that something is going on and possibly have a certain amount of proof, but lack the ability (or funds) to pull together a more formal complaint. As Free Press did with its original complaint against Comcast, larger, more organized groups can band together and file a formal complaint with lawyers and fees and affidavits.  When asked yesterday if formal complaints would take priority over individual consumer complaints, the FCC said it would evaluate everything individually on its own merits. The agency will also keep tabs on individual complaints to watch for trends that require a larger investigation, the commission said.


I think this whole debate is something that we should definitely keep our eyes on closely and make sure that our rights as citizens aren’t trampled on and that we don’t start seeing companies like Comcast with a team of lobbyists planting crazy ideas into the minds of our elected officials. We have to stand up and let our voices be heard in order to protect our freedoms to download music or visit any website we dang well please.  After all, that’s why Al Gore invented the crazy thing to start with…