Monday, October 19, 2009

Net Neutrality: Hell's A Popping As Cyber Technology Meets The Big Bad World

The concept of net neutrality is simple: That the Internet as it applies to broadband residential use is a level playing field. There are no restrictions on content or modes of communication, no information should have a higher priority than any other, and users should be able to connect to each other in an unfettered manner.

But from there net neutrality gets incredibly complicated, notably the role of government in enforcing neutrality versus Internet providers' proprietary rights, as well as the vexsome question of whether net neutrality actually is a wolf in sheep's clothing because it might hinder the growth of the Internet, including the development of new networks.

If your eyes already are glazing over, that's understandable. Any serious discussion of net neutrality is freighted with layers of social, legal, commercial, political and technological issues.

But for a wonk like me, that is precisely why it is so interesting, and it should be of at least passing interest for anyone concerned that providers like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T want to impose tiered service on you in order to reduce competition, block certain services, force subscribers to buy their own services no matter how uncompetitive they may be, and impose premiums for heavy use and bandwidth hungry peer-to-peer applications such as BitTorrent.

* * * * *
The battle lines in the war over net neutrality have long been drawn, and while it's no surprise that providers and computer hardware companies are foursquare against the concept, it may come as a shock after eight years of Bush administration deregulation and telecom industry coddling that the Federal Communications Commission is for it -- and has been for some time.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski (right), a Barack Obama appointee, hammered this home in a recent speech with the lofty title of "Preserving a Free and Open Internet: A Platform for Innovation, Opportunity and Prosperity."

Long story short, Genachowski declared that the FCC will impose a "nondiscrimination" obligation on providers while making sure that this doesn't interfere with reasonable network management practices like weeding out unauthorized music downloads. (And in a real knee slapper, Republicans are warning the commish that any net neutrality policy must be bipartisan.)

All good, you say.
Well, as much as it pains me to even think about being on the same side of the divide as ginormous Comcast, which is the provider for 15 million subscribers, including Yours Truly, maybe it's not all good, and more government intervention in the service of protecting subscribers may actually be a bad thing.

While Comcast was caught red handed trying to choke off peer-to-peer traffic, backed off after a consumer backlash and FCC wristslap and is now suing the feds for the right to control the Internet tap as it sees fit, lurking in the background is the aforementioned threat to innovation.

The prospect of next-generation wireless networks undermining the broadband duopoloy (pardon my French) is sublime. But if the effect of net neutrality is to tamp down competition between Comcast and the other telecoms who make up the duopoloy by throwing up barriers to new business models, let alone inhibit newcomers who have the Next Big Thing, then the supposed altruism of net neutrality begins to look kind of tainted.

My own sophomore-level view is for the FCC to be vigilant about Comcast and its
brethern pulling fast ones while letting the market shake out, which if left unfettered it most certainly will.

I first logged onto the Internet in November 1994 using Netscape Navigator 1.0. About 38 million people were online worldwide back then. If you're of a certain age, you probably never even heard of this then-breakthrough search engine, which was quickly overtaken by Microsoft IE in one of the waves of innovation that have coursed through the Internet world like the passing of the seasons in the 15 years that I've been Web surfing. (Some 1.6 billion people, give or take a few million, are now online.)

See, I told you that this was one complicated critter.

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