Tag: network neutrality

FCC to Make Internet Service a Public Utility

Do you want your Internet service provider to operate like the water company or the electric company? Internet access services will be more like these leaden public utilities if the Federal Communications Commission tries one of the more likely workarounds to a D.C. Circuit Court decision today that restricts its authority to regulate.

The story is long and involved—read it in the court’s opinion if you like—but the FCC has sought for years now to regulate broadband Internet service providers something like it used to regulate AT&T, with government mandated terms of service if not tarriffs and price controls. This doesn’t fit the technical environment of the Internet, which allows for diverse business models. Companies that experiment with network management, pricing, internal subsidy, and so on can find the configurations that serve widely varying consumers and their differing Internet needs the best. If government believes in fast lanes and slow lanes, surely Internet service providers could optimize service for movie delivery, video calling, and such, while email arrives a little less speedily.

The court found that the FCC’s plans don’t fit with its classification some years ago of broadband as an “information service,” subject to the light-touch regulation under Title I of the Communications Act. Title II, which applies to “telecommunications carriers,” allows common carrier regulation of the type the FCC is trying to impose. So watch for the FCC to conveniently change its mind and begin pushing for treatment of broadband once again as a “telecommunications service.” This is so it can have more control over the business decisions made by Internet service providers.

We made the case more than five years ago that “ ‘Net neutrality” is a good engineering principle, but it shouldn’t be a legal mandate. Technology and markets surpassed any need for command-and-control regulation in this area long ago. But regulators don’t give up power without a fight. To maintain power, the FCC may try to make Internet service a public utility.

Net Neutrality Regulation: A Solution in Search of a Problem

This Reason.tv video illustrates the weak case for network neutrality regulation of Internet service providers.

In the AT&T case, which the video touches on, an AT&T web site blocked some (barely) controversial statements by Eddie Vedder—the Pearl Jam lead singer who stopped mattering a really long time ago. This was an error, and it was contrary to AT&T policy, according to this August 2007 story. Yet the example is one of a few used to argue for net neutrality regulations.

Do we really want the government treading any of this ground?

Most people would probably agree that web site operators should be free to publish or not publish whatever they want. Regulations barring web sites from editing out controversial political statements, or requiring them to broadcast them, would be facially unconstitutional. Strangely, proponents of net neutrality regulation tout this kind of regulation as a virtue at the Internet’s transport layer.

Hijacking Neutrality

Perhaps he’s too demure to say “I told you so” himself, but events are bearing out the concerns about net neutrality and regulatory capture that  Tim Lee expressed in his excellent Cato paper “The Durable Internet.” The content industry is lobbying not just to ensure that neutrality rules permit filtering of Internet traffic by ISPs to block copyrighted material, but wants the FCC to positively encourage it.  As a brief from the Motion Picture Association of America suggests:

In fact, if the Commission wants to see a meaningful and long-term reduction in the amount of bandwidth consumed by illegal content, it should foster an environment in which innovation itself is able to flourish and new tools are not only permitted, but encouraged, to develop. The government should create incentives for this investment by clarifying that industry efforts will be rewarded with open and flexible regulations.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been out of step with some of their usual allies on this front, arguing that however desirable the open Internet might be, the broad assertion by the FCC of authority to control network architecture sets a dangerous precedent. The implicit threat to ISPs here is: “Go along with our wish list for intrusive filtering or we’ll find a way to use the rules to make trouble for you.”

The telecoms, meanwhile, are pressing for the applicability of neutrality rules to all sorts of other application-level service providers, such as Google. An AT&T filing argued that “the commission cannot rationally impose rules on one set of providers based on hypothetical concerns while exempting other providers that act as Internet gatekeepers and have engaged in actual misconduct.” They specifically called out Google, which they assert “shapes how consumers actually experience the Internet more than any given broadband provider possibly could.”

It would, to be sure, be perverse if industry players managed to use regulations designed to promote openness and innovation as a cudgel with which to whack innovative competitors. But in the world of regulation, no less than in the domains studied by Alfred Kinsey, it turns out that the perverse is perfectly normal.

Siding with the Geeks on Network Neutrality

One of the perennial tropes of the network neutrality debate has been the tendency of the pro-regulation side to paint it as a David-and-Goliath struggle between big, evil corporations and the little guy. Way back in 2006, James Gattuso pointed out how silly this is: in fact, the push for network neutrality is backed by some of the largest companies in Silicon Valley. Julian points out a particularly lazy example of this kind of ad hominem that happens to target Cato: It seems that we’re one of the “15 greatest enemies of net neutrality.” And that along with CEI, Cato “seems to draw its funding from a smattering of every major corporation ever to fund lobbyists.”

As Julian points out, if “VoIP News” had done its homework, it might have discovered that Cato makes its annual report freely available online. Then they they would have noticed that corporate support accounts for about 1 percent of Cato’s budget, and that none of Cato’s corporate funders are major opponents of network neutrality regulation.

Shoddy reporting aside, the “VoIP News” article does actually highlight an important point: the people who built the Internet are deeply split on the issue of regulating the Internet, with eminent computer scientists including Bob Kahn (co-inventor of the Internet’s TCP/IP protocols with Vint Cerf) and Dave Farber (another networking pioneer) on the anti-regulation side. And based on conversations I’ve had here at Princeton, Kahn and Farber are far from the only computer scientists who are skeptical that the FCC is up to the job of regulating the Internet.

In a vacuous appearance on Rachel Maddow last week, blogger Xeni Jardin cited Vint Cerf’s support of regulation and urged viewers to “side with the geeks who actually built the Internet.” She did not, of course, mention that Kahn and Farber, who fit that description as well as Cerf does, are on the other side. “The geeks” are as split on this issue as everyone else.

Update: Tim Carney has an excellent article making a similar point: Internet companies like Google and Amazon, who have lobbied hard for network neutrality, gave overwhelmingly to Obama over McCain in the 2008 election. This doesn’t prove Obama and Chairman Genachowski are insincere in their support for network neutrality. But it does mean we should take both side’s arguments with a grain of salt.