This is Part One of a multi-part series on Net Neutrality and the Future of the Internet. This is obviously a complicated topic. Its a topic that is of great interest and importance to the Digg and P2P crowd. Its a topic of great importance, but not great interest, to the majority of the population.
Part One of this series will address some of the basic principles and history behind net neutrality and is intended for the net neutrality newbs. If these are subjects that you are already familiar with, you may want to jump on to Part Two, which discusses the 1996 Telecom Act.
What is Net Neutrality?
“Network neutrality is best defined as a network design principle. The idea is that a maximally useful public information network aspires to treat all content, sites, and platforms equally. This allows the network to carry every form of information and support every kind of application. The principle suggests that information networks are often more valuable when they are less specialized – when they are a platform for multiple uses, present and future.” Tim Wu.
Here’s the Wikipedia entry, FWIW.
What is the Government’s Current Policy Towards Net Neutrality?
In 2005, the FCC enunciated Four Principles designed to encourage an open interconnected internet. They are:
1. Consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice;
2. Consumers are entitled to run applications and services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement;
3. Consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network; and
4. Consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.
In essence these four principles boil down to two words: competition and choice. Since its inception, the internet has largely operated on these principles. It was originally designed this way in order to encourage innovation. Operators of the networks that comprise the internet generally continue to abide by these principles.
Network Neutrality: Mandated or Voluntary?
It is important to note that the FCC has promulgated principles, not rules. “Although the Commission did not adopt rules in this regard, it will incorporate these principles into its ongoing policymaking activities. All of these principles are subject to reasonable network management.”
This is significant. FCC rules are requirements upon network operators. These principles are merely the guidelines the FCC follows as they make decisions regarding the internet. Generally, the FCC is following general Republican principles: less regulation is better regulation.
Again, from Tim Wu.
“I think it’s important to differentiate sharply between the principle of network neutrality and a network neutrality law. It’s a mistake to equivocate the design principle with proposed legislation of various forms. A neutral network might be designed without legal prodding – as in the original internet. In an ideal world, either competition or enlightened self-interest might drive carriers to design neutral networks.”
Once solely the province of engineers and geeks, the intellectual arguments surrounding net neutrality has escalated over the last few years. While not yet something that the general populace understands or cares about, there is now a significant portion of the country/world that now at least understands the general concepts and significance of the issue. This has generally resulted from a few egregious violations of net neutrality principles by network operators, especially Comcast’s recent cutting off legal peer-to-peer file-sharing networks such as BitTorrent and Gnutella.
These violations of net neutrality principles have caught the attention of MSM, Congress and some of the general populace. For the internet generation, its raised our awareness that some of those people in government who are responsible for the rules and regulations regarding the internet appear to have absolutely no clue about it. Senator Stevens series of tubes speech is obviously the most egregious example of what we worry about when it comes to government regulation of the internet.
“Ten movies streaming across that, that Internet, and what happens to your own personal Internet? I just the other day got… an Internet was sent by my staff at 10 o’clock in the morning on Friday, I got it yesterday [Tuesday]. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the Internet commercially.
[…] They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet. And again, the Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes. And if you don’t understand, those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it’s going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.”
Even if Senator Stevens isn’t as ignorant as he sounded, it is certainly something to be concerned about.
In the last two years, a number of bills have been introduced in Congress addressing the concept of net neutrality in various ways.
Why Should You Care About Net Neutrality?
If you have a cell phone then you likely subconsciously understand one of the benefits of net neutrality. Unlike the internet, cell phone networks were designed as proprietary networks which are only open in so far as they need to be. As a result, you are locked into those devices and applications which the owners of the network allow you to use. If Verizon wants to require you to use their V-Cast service, to the exclusion of Youtube and other sites, they will find a way to do that. To date, they have largely gotten away with this.
The internet is, fortunately, another story altogether. The internet was designed to be meritocratic. To date, it has largely remained that way. The general view is that this is good for consumers. It is also a view that may or may not be true. That is what we are trying to examine here.
Without net neutrality is it possible that we would eventually end up with a situation that is similar to what we are stuck with cable television? Or with cell phone companies? A situation where we are overcharged by oliogopies for “comcastic” level service?
If net neutrality legislation is enacted, and the net is regulated by the government, will we end up with 1950’s era telephone service? Will the internet be so clogged that it’ll be slower than the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago during rush hour?
These are the issues I’ll be examining in the next few posts.
In the mean time, you may want to read this Common Cause FAQ on Net Neutrality.