Oct. 23, 2009— -- "Internet neutrality."
You've probably heard the term or read it online and simply skipped past it without a second thought. Maybe it seemed abstract, arcane or a bit geeky, not something you as an Internet user needed to worry about.
But now it's time to pay attention, because this week the Federal Communications Commission turned up the heat on a long-simmering debate known as "Internet neutrality."
Thursday, in a bold move, the FCC proposed regulations to ensure that broadband providers -- the companies providing high-speed Internet connections to our homes -- deliver Internet traffic to subscribers in a nondiscriminatory manner.
So why should you care? If you use the Web or instant messaging -- or Google or Facebook or Twitter or use VoIP to make a call, to take just several popular examples -- you are enjoying the fruits of the Internet's history as an open and "neutral" network. Individuals or small start-ups launched each of these applications and services on a level playing field.
Each succeeded because Internet users found their services valuable. Many other innovative ideas had an equal chance to succeed on the Internet, but failed to attract users. That's how the Internet works, and it's important to keep it that way -- open and available for new applications to rise or fall on their own merits, without interference.
That's what makes the Internet different from other media. Broadband companies provide consumers with "on ramps" to the Internet. But unlike other media, they do not try to control what gets carried across their networks. They are, for the most part, agnostic as to which online applications or service their subscribers' access.
No online service gets preferential treatment, and an online service that competes with the broadband provider's own offerings is delivered without discrimination.
As a result, innovators are free to develop new technologies and services -- taking advantage of the Internet's open set of common technical standards -- and share them with the entire world. There is no need to negotiate or seek permission from anyone on the network.
No Gatekeepers on the Internet
In short, there are no gatekeepers on the Internet. Google started in a garage and Facebook in a dorm room, and they did not need to seek permission from anyone to launch online.
This novel arrangement of "innovation without permission" is exactly what makes the Internet a hotbed of technological advancement and creativity. Whether people realize it or not, everyone who uses the Internet today benefits greatly from the Internet's open platform and lack of centralized control.
But as the Internet has moved from dial-up to broadband, concerns are growing that the future of the open and neutral platform may not be a sure thing. In the dial-up world, the Internet ran across plain old telephone wires and benefitted from longstanding "common carriage" rules that required the phone companies to carry all traffic without discrimination.
Broadband carriers do not need to play by those rules, and concern is growing that pressures to manage increasingly complicated broadband networks and maximize revenues will lead carriers to seek increasing levels of centralized control.
OK, now that you're up to speed on "telephony trivia" the question about to be hard fought before the FCC shortly is whether any new "Internet neutrality" rules are needed to ensure the preservation of the open Internet.
Proponents of new rules to ensure non-discrimination, including most prominently the chairman of the FCC, point to cases where broadband providers have blocked competitive services like VoIP or taken action to disfavor lawful peer-to-peer file sharing applications.
They also point out that the broadband marketplace only has limited competition, so consumers have little ability to influence the practices of their provider -- or to walk if discrimination occurs. What is more, the economic self-interest of broadband companies makes discrimination over time more likely.
Today's broadband Internet delivers content and services that directly compete with the broadband company's own cable TV and phone services. The opportunity for mischief, either by slowing down or otherwise discriminating against the online competition or cutting financial deals with some online services for favored status, is a serious concern.
Traffic Online Is Increasing at Exponential Pace
Complicating the analysis is the question of how to define the phrase "reasonable network management." Traffic on the Internet is increasing at an exponential pace, forcing network providers to invest heavily in upgrading their networks and making them more capable of managing traffic to cope with congestion.
There are legitimate questions about whether prioritization of specific categories of traffic that need speedier or more reliable delivery constitutes discrimination or is simply legitimate network management requiring nuanced public policy guidance.
In addition, there are questions of when and how broadband providers may offer communications services that are not Internet-based (think cable television, private corporate networks, etc.) and hence ought not be subject to non-discrimination rules.
Broadband providers are adamant that no rules are necessary: They argue Internet subscribers sign up for service with the expectation that they will get access to the entire Internet, and a broadband provider would be foolish to deliver anything less. The market they say, will keep them honest. Meanwhile, rules could hamstring efforts to manage congestion and maximize network performance, and depress investment in broadband.
There are reasons to be skeptical that market forces would provide an adequate safeguard against such an outcome because it is difficult for consumers to evaluate the impact of a broadband provider's prioritization policies.
Suppose a new application is working poorly or slowly. Is the new application just not that good or it is the broadband provider interfering with its delivery?
Without more transparency, consumers cannot tell what is going on and the market cannot provide an effective check. And it doesn't help that most consumers have a very limited number of broadband providers from which to choose.
With its proposed Internet neutrality regulations, the commission is facing a tricky task. It must avoid a rule that amounts to micromanagement of broadband networks. It must provide the flexibility to deal with network harms and congestion. And it must leave breathing room for innovation for both network operators and online companies.
Most of all, it needs to regulate lightly, evaluating practices on a case-by-case basis and drawing a bright jurisdictional line between regulation of the physical connections to the Internet -- the wired or wireless "on ramps" -- and regulation of the multitude of content, services and applications that flow over those on ramps.
Right now, the Internet's openness rests on thin, unregulated footing.
We can risk the Internet with a wait-and-see approach or find some lightweight regulatory safeguards to ensure that it continues to serve as an unparalleled engine of innovation.
The FCC has made the right choice in taking action. Now the hard part begins.
Leslie Harris is president and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology.