Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Great Net Neutrality Debate

What is Net Neutrality ?
It is simply that governments and Internet service providers (ISPs) should not place any restrictions on the Internet’s content or means of accessing that content. Internet users should be in control of what content they view and what applications they use on the Internet. The Internet has operated according to this neutrality principle since its earliest days and the big broadband carriers like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast for example, should not be permitted to use their market power to discriminate against competing applications or content. The telephone companies mentioned are not permitted to tell consumers who they can call or what they can say; Net Neutrality proponents say the same telephone companies and other broadband carriers should not be allowed to use their market power to control activity online.However, Google and Verizon put forward a proposal to the Federal Communications Commission to essentially retain this net neutrality on the public Internet but to allow broadband operators and network operators to offer new services that might be discriminatory in terms of their price and speed. They are proposing that broadband providers can allocate bandwidth for such projects, working with other application or service providers as they see fit. They mentioned a few specific examples to help illustrate this, such as health care monitoring, advanced educational services, or new entertainment and gaming options. Basically, they proposed that they be permitted to create a two-tier system whereby network capacity could be sold to companies willing to pay for that service, in turn to provide a higher quality service to their users.

Verizon said it has no intention of selling bandwidth from the ‘public’ network, it wants to make certain it could provide dedicated bandwidth-based services to third parties if it wanted to. Verizon CEO, Ivan Seidenberg said: “Verizon is standing tall. We said we agree that there should be no paid prioritization of traffic over the public Internet. Google (and others) will continue to innovate, and we have to feed that cookie monster. All we have asked is that we are allowed to offer services like Fios.” Fios is a bundled home communications service Verizon offers that makes use of an end-to-end fibre optics network, offering Internet, telephone and television. Verizon cannot offer it over the Internet, given neutrality requirements, so it is offered as a network separate from the Internet.
Those in favor of net neutrality clearly don’t like this at all, as creating a two-tier system, even if it means legislating neutrality in one of the tiers, results in the fragmentation that they fear and still discriminates in their eyes. Given that Google’s unofficial motto is ‘Do no evil’, the backlash in some quarters has been brutal. On the ominous Friday the 13th of August, internet users from across the Bay Area converged outside Google’s offices in protest. The rally was organized by ColorofChange.org, Credo Action, MoveOn.org, Free Press and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. SavetheInternet.com summarized the sentiment as follows: “Google previously had been a champion of policies such as Net Neutrality — the fundamental principle that keeps the Internet open and free from discrimination. Its decision to team up with Verizon, long an opponent of such policies, has drawn the ire of public interest advocates.”

What is the scorecard? Many Internet giants are proponents of net neutrality, and also supporters of the U.S. government’s involvement in regulating it to ensure the Internet stays ‘open’. The likes of Amazon, Craigslist, Google (kind of), Facebook, Sony, IAC, and Twitter fall into this camp. President Obama himself does too: “I am a strong supporter of net neutrality … What you've been seeing is some lobbying that says that the servers and the various portals through which you’re getting information over the Internet should be able to be gatekeepers and to charge different rates to different Web sites… And that I think destroys one of the best things about the Internet — which is that there is this incredible equality there … Facebook, MySpace, Google might not have been started if you had not had a level playing field for whoever’s got the best idea and I want to maintain that basic principal in how the Internet functions. "As president, I am going to make sure that that is the principle that my FCC commissioners are applying as we move forward.”

In the against-net-neutrality camp are a number of large hardware and telecommunications firms, who would invariably benefit from being allowed to redefine the way the Internet works as they control the means of accessing it. In addition, opponents also include heavyweights such as Bob Kahn (inventor of TCP — “net neutrality is a slogan that would freeze innovation in the core of the Internet”) and Professor David Farber (“The Internet needs a makeover”). Robert Pepper, senior managing director of global advanced technology policy believes all the pro-net neutrality hype, is just that, hype.

What does the law say?
The law that affects net neutrality differs globally. In the U.S. there is considerable debate around the topic, with the FCC being involved in trying to legislate around this area, and sometimes not by choice. For instance, a court case against Comcast was the first to seriously touch on this aspect, with Comcast was accused of unlawfully throttling BitTorrent traffic in a class action suit. Comcast settled for $16 million, with the FCC stating Comcast needed to comply with transparent network management practices.
Are we truly net neutral today and if so,
How long can it be sustained?

There are a number of central arguments used in opposition to any kind of net neutrality legislation. Firstly, that the ability to charge users/sites different rates for differing levels of access will provide the revenues to ISPs and other network operators necessary for them to recoup their investments in broadband networks. Verizon has said there is no current incentive for it to develop and deploy advanced, super-fast fibre optic networks if it can’t charge more for access to such networks. Verizon and a number of ISPs have often referred to firms like Google and Skype as ‘freeloaders’ for making money using networks that they have provided at a cost of billions. Secondly, many suggest what we have right now isn’t in fact net neutrality at all. The biggest firms can invest in higher bandwidth deals and server replication to provide faster access for its users in comparison to smaller sites that wouldn’t be able to afford such infrastructure, for net neutrality isn’t even something that exists to uphold. Thirdly, the increase in rich media means infrastructure providers have far more pressures on their resources than was once the case. Bret Swanson of the Wall Street Journal suggests Youtube streams as much data in three months as the world’s radio, cable and broadband television channels stream in one year, i.e. 75 petabytes. By extension he believes telecommunications firms are simply not ready for the era of ‘exabyte’ delivery and something needs to give.

What’s next? In a recent bill introduced in Congress, U.S. House Democrats failed to win Republican support needed for legislation giving regulators temporary authority over how companies led by Comcast Corp. and AT&T Inc. provide Web service, Representative Henry Waxman said. A measure that would let the U.S. Federal Communications Commission enforce net-neutrality rules for two years won’t be introduced immediately, Waxman, a California Democrat and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said on September 29, in an e-mailed statement. “This development is a loss for consumers and a gain only for the extremes,” Waxman said. “We need to break the deadlock on Net Neutrality.” The bill aimed to ensure the FCC has the power that was called into question when a U.S. court in April ruled it lacked authority over Internet-service providers. Republican leaders decided “there is not sufficient time to ensure that Chairman Waxman’s proposal will keep the Internet open without chilling innovation,” Representative Joe Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the committee, said in an e-mailed statement. Congress is to adjourn within days to campaign for the Nov. 2 elections. “It is not appropriate to give the FCC authority to regulate the Internet,” Barton said The bill may be introduced after the elections, Waxman said. The measure would restore the FCC’s authority to prevent the blocking of Internet content, bar phone and cable companies from unjustly or unreasonably discriminating against any lawful Internet traffic, and apply strictures to wireless providers, Waxman said.
“Under our proposal, the FCC could begin enforcing these open Internet rules immediately, with maximum fines increased from $75,000 to $2,000,000 for violations,” Waxman said. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in September 2009 proposed rules aimed at ensuring net neutrality. He hasn’t sought a vote while the commission considers its reaction to the April court ruling.
Today’s development prompted renewed calls for Genachowski to proceed with his idea to claim power over Internet service using rules written for monopoly telephone service in the 20th century. AT&T and Verizon Communications Inc. oppose such action and say it may prompt more regulation, including price controls. Lawmakers and advocacy groups have urged Genachowski to proceed, saying customers need protection. Waxman’s bill would bar the FCC from using the phone rules during its two-year duration. “If our efforts to find bipartisan consensus fail, the FCC should move forward,” Waxman said.
Complete freedom of open access on the Internet or tiered payment approaches to stimulate corporate innovation.- you decide.

C. Cohn
The Cohn-Reilly Report

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