The Chair of the Federal Communications Commission has taken a stand for network neutrality - the founding principle of openness of the Internet. In short, network neutrality means the entity providing you access to the Internet cannot interfere with the sites you choose to visit - it cannot speed them up or slow them down in order to increase their profits. See video at the bottom of this post for a longer explanation.
FCC Chair Julius Genachowski recently spoke at the Brookings Institution [pdf] on the importance of an open Internet. He started by noting many of the ways we depend on services delivered over the Internet:
Even now, the Internet is beginning to transform health care, education, and energy usage for the better. Health-related applications, distributed over a widely connected Internet, can help bring down health care costs and improve medical service. Four out of five Americans who are online have accessed medical information over the Internet, and most say this information affected their decision-making. Nearly four million college students took at least one online course in 2007, and the Internet can potentially connect kids anywhere to the best information and teachers everywhere. And the Internet is helping enable smart grid technologies, which promise to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by hundreds of millions of metric tons.
However, because most Americans get access to the Internet from large, absentee-owned profit-maximizing companies who are often de facto monopolies, we have to beware the gulf between community interests and the narrow interests of these companies.
A second reason [for network neutrality rules] involves the economic incentives of broadband providers. The great majority of companies that operate our nation’s broadband pipes rely upon revenue from selling phone service, cable TV subscriptions, or both. These services increasingly compete with voice and video products provided over the Internet. The net result is that broadband providers’ rational bottom-line interests may diverge from the broad interests of consumers in competition and choice.
For this reason and others, the Chair suggested adding two new "freedoms" to the four Internet freedoms [pdf] already recognized by the FCC (freedom to access content, use applications, attach personal devices to the network, and obtain service plan information).
The fifth freedom expands on the first two - to access content and applications. Under these rules, providers will be explicitly prohibited from interfering with legal content - something that is currently less clear (which is why Comcast is suing the FCC over its power to enforce this rule).
The fifth principle is one of non-discrimination -- stating that broadband providers cannot discriminate against particular Internet content or applications. This means they cannot block or degrade lawful traffic over their networks, or pick winners by favoring some content or applications over others in the connection to subscribers’ homes. Nor can they disfavor an Internet service just because it competes with a similar service offered by that broadband provider. The Internet must continue to allow users to decide what content and applications succeed.
And the sixth freedom expands on our previous freedom to obtain service plan information - it expands the required transparency of Internet Service Providers.
The sixth principle is a transparency principle -- stating that providers of broadband Internet access must be transparent about their network management practices. Why does the FCC need to adopt this principle? The Internet evolved through open standards. It was conceived as a tool whose user manual would be free and available to all. But new network management practices and technologies challenge this original understanding. Today, broadband providers have the technical ability to change how the Internet works for millions of users -- with profound consequences for those users and content, application, and service providers around the world.
Note that these are not yet rules, they are potential rules that have to go through the FCC process - something that should be a given as 3 of the 5 FCC Commissioners support Genachowski on the matter and even President Obama has praised the idea.
The LA Times also endorsed the idea, further explaining why it is necessary:
Lobbyists for phone and cable TV companies argue that there's little evidence of ISPs playing unfairly or violating Powell's four freedoms. Yet when the FCC moved to stop Comcast from surreptitiously interfering with a legal file-sharing application last year, Comcast sued, claiming the commission had no power to enforce the principles. It's paradoxical that the government should have to regulate the Internet to preserve its unregulated essence. But with so little competition in broadband service, the major phone and cable companies have the power and the incentive to stop worthy but disruptive innovations in the name of "managing congestion." The FCC should set clear rules that enable ISPs to keep data flowing from all legal services and applications, not just favored ones.
Network Neutrality is a necessary but insufficient rule to protect subscribers. Service providers must not be allowed to interfere with user freedom to boost corporate profits but this is just a small part of the problem outlined by Genachowski above: the divergent interests of profit-maximizing companies and the communities that depend on broadband infrastructure. Community networks are far less likely to interfere with subscriber freedoms, something that will not change even as corporate lobbyists chip away at regulations protecting subscribers from companies like AT&T and Comcast.
Photo used under Creative Commons license from AdamWillis.