Net neutrality, a term coined by Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu, is the idea "that a maximally useful public information network aspires to treat all content, sites and platforms equally." In other words, when people pay to be connected to the Internet, the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are not allowed to decide which Internet users get preferential treatment. The principle is currently in practice for the most part, although ISPs have found a way around this -- there have been a few abuses.
Net neutrality conversations come and go. The recent upsurge in net neutrality discussions began Jan. 14, when the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the FCC cannot impose net neutrality principles on Verizon broadband services because ISPs are not classified as "common carriers" -- a ruling interpreted by many as resting on a technicality. "The groundwork for Tuesday's defeat was established in 2002, when the FCC made the fateful decision to classify broadband as an 'information service' not a 'telecommunications service,' which would have allowed the agency to impose 'common carrier' regulations prohibiting discrimination by the broadband companies," wrote Time magazine's Sam Gustin in, "'Net Neutrality' Ruling Paves the Way For Internet' Fast Lanes.'" My Jan. 16 blog post addresses some of the implications of an Internet where ISPs are in a position to tailor transmission speeds to suit their business plans.
The beauty of the Internet is that anyone can create a stir about their ideas and products by simply putting up a website and creating a buzz in social media. If ISPs cater to those paying big bucks then customers are unlikely to see some of these sites.
During the past week, discussions have reached a fever pitch because of a recent blog post by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, titled "Setting the record straight on the FCC's open Internet rules." Reactions to the post have been all over the place -- this article by Grant Gross in PC World lays it out nicely. In my opinion, Wheeler's post does not address any of the core issues and only adds to the confusion.
The FCC's new position is based on the premise that it is OK for ISPs to deliver "ISP preferred" content to the consumer as long as it is "commercially reasonable." This is pure government-speak. Who determines what is "commercially reasonable" and, most importantly, what is the strategy to keep pace with emerging technologies? Does the FCC have enough manpower to oversee compliance? What will be the penalty for violations? Wheeler writes "that all ISPs must transparently disclose to their subscribers and users all relevant information as to the policies that govern their network." Really? Now I have to read another two pages of legalese that I most likely won't understand? Wheeler should have waited to write about this until after the FCC's release of its detailed proposal on May 15, at which time we will have a lot more information than a brief blog post.
I do understand this much: If net neutrality is not in play, ISPs are going to favor content providers who pay for preferential treatment. As with everything else, it is clear that these additional costs will be passed on to consumers in some fashion -- plain and simple. It will also cripple creativity in that some innovative startups may be unable to reach their audience without coughing up extra money, which they may not have. The beauty of the Internet is that anyone can create a stir about their ideas and products by simply putting up a website and creating a buzz in social media. If ISPs cater to those paying big bucks then customers are unlikely to see some of these sites.
Such scenarios are extremes and may not happen immediately. However, consider the cable TV industry as a reference. It looks impressive that I have access to 200+ channels, but I only watch 10 of them. My kids are out of the house and I don’t want Nickelodeon or the Cartoon Network or even MTV. But it is next to impossible to get just the channels I want, and it costs more than bundled choices. The cable companies decide how to package the channels for their monetary advantage. On top of that, in most of the U.S., cable TV is essentially a monopoly, so I can’t turn to another provider. Do we want the same mess when it comes to Internet access?
More on Net Neutrality
Is the ruling on Net neutrality good for ISPs?
The FCC, net neutrality and Court of Appeals: What's next?
SDN and NFV thinkers should pay attention to net neutrality
It is understandable that preferential treatment in return for money is pervasive -- and persuasive. Companies do what they want to do to maximize their profits. Supermarkets practice this by placing food and groceries in such a way as to attract our attention to certain products, for which the manufacturers pay a premium. But, at least we still have choices -- I can bend down and pick up the loaf of bread I love. If some of the groceries I am looking for are not available in one store, I can go to another nearby. It is inconvenient, but I have that choice. The same applies to clothing or other items. And increasingly I get to select the items I want at the price I am willing to pay and from the comfort of my home. But wait! I may not be able to do this in the near future, because my ISP decides where I can shop on the 'Net.
I fully understand that the FCC is reacting to the court's ruling and cannot impose net neutrality rules on a technicality. But why doesn't the FCC fight back? How about reclassifying the ISPs as common carriers? I realize this may not be possible legally and, if it is, the ISPs will surely mount a huge battle against it. Perhaps it's time, as has been suggested, that we Netizens rise up and make our voices heard.
About the author:
Ravi Ravishanker is CIO and associate dean of WellesleyX at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. He is a frequent commentator on IT issues.