Amid charge and countercharge about who is shilling for whom in the debate over Internet regulation, Peter Suderman has the right focus in a short piece on Reason's Hit & Run blog. The Federal Communications Commission's Chairman is claiming that he only wants to regulate the Internet's infrastructure, but one of his colleagues, Commissioner Michael Copps, is non-denying that he wants to censor the Internet.
There may be exceptions, but it's usually pretty safe to assume that anytime a politician or bureaucrat dodges a question while calling for "a national discussion about" the proposal at hand, what he or she really means is, "I want to indicate that I support this idea without actually going on record as supporting it."
The FCC does censorship. It's unfortunate to see willful disregard of this by the folks wanting to install the FCC as the Internet's regulator.
Julian Sanchez has already done a fine job of assessing FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's speech announcing his plan for federal regulation of the Internet. There was nothing really new in it. No substantial problems justifying regulation have emerged, and---Genachowski's claims to modest aims aside---any 'net neutrality regulation is likely to be a substantive morass. Says Julian:
[I]t absolutely reeks of the sort of ad hoc 'I know it when I see it' standard that leaves telecoms wondering whether some innovative practice will bring down the Wrath of Comms only after resources have been sunk into rolling it out."
If the FCC goes ahead with regulating the Internet, the public will get a good look at what closed systems are really like. The FCC's retrograde "Electronic Comment Filing System" doesn't even allow full-text searches of submissions. This is but one failing the Internet's engineers all over the country---and not just in big telcos---will run into dealing with the FCC. It's laughable that this outdated telecommunications bureaucracy is trying to take over the Internet.
A complex array of network protocols and business processes make up "the Internet." The Internet's end-to-end architecture is good engineering because it is naturally open, flexible, and conducive to communications freedom. The Internet empowers consumers to fend for themselves, such as in their dealings with Internet Service Providers. When Comcast degraded the Bitorrent protocol, it took just weeks for consumer pushback to end the practice. The FCC opened an inquiry long after the matter was settled.
But some politicians and the FCC's lawyers think their slow-moving, technologically unsophisticated bureaucracy knows better than consumers and technologists how to run the Internet. The FCC's "net neutrality" plans are nothing more than public utility regulation for broadband. With federal regulation, your online experience will be a little more like dealing with the water company or the electric company and a little less like . . . well, the Internet!
As Julian said, Tim Lee's is the definitive paper. The Internet is far more durable than regulators and advocates imagine. And regulators are far less capable of neutrally arbitrating what's in the public interests than they imagine either.
I won't go on at too much length about FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's speech at Brookings announcing his intention to codify the principle of "net neutrality" in agency rules—not because I don't have thoughts, but because I expect it would be hard to improve on my colleague Tim Lee's definitive paper, and because there's actually not a whole lot of novel substance in the speech.
The digest version is that the open Internet is awesome (true!) and so the FCC is going to impose a "nondiscrimination" obligation on telecom providers—though Genachowski makes sure to stress this won't be an obstacle to letting the copyright cops sniff through your packets for potentially "unauthorized" music, or otherwise interfere with "reasonable" network management practices.
And what exactly does that mean?
Well, they'll do their best to flesh out the definition of "reasonable," but in general they'll "evaluate alleged violations...on a case-by-case basis." Insofar as any more rigid rule would probably be obsolete before the ink dried, I guess that's somewhat reassuring, but it absolutely reeks of the sort of ad hoc "I know it when I see it" standard that leaves telecoms wondering whether some innovative practice will bring down the Wrath of Comms only after resources have been sunk into rolling it out. Apropos of which, this is the line from the talk that really jumped out at me:
This is not about protecting the Internet against imaginary dangers. We’re seeing the breaks and cracks emerge, and they threaten to change the Internet’s fundamental architecture of openness. [....] This is about preserving and maintaining something profoundly successful and ensuring that it’s not distorted or undermined. If we wait too long to preserve a free and open Internet, it will be too late.
To which I respond: Whaaaa? What we've actually seen are some scattered and mostly misguided attempts by certain ISPs to choke off certain kinds of traffic, thus far largely nipped in the bud by a combination of consumer backlash and FCC brandishing of existing powers. To the extent that packet "discrimination" involves digging into the content of user communications, it may well run up against existing privacy regulations that require explicit, affirmative user consent for such monitoring. In any event, I'm prepared to believe the situation could worsen. But pace Genachowski, it's really pretty mysterious to me why you couldn't start talking about the wisdom—and precise character—of some further regulatory response if and when it began to look like a free and open Internet were in serious danger.
Politico reports that President Obama's nominee to head the Federal Communications Commission, Julius Genachowski, is expected to pursue "'net neutrality" regulation of broadband Internet service.
In his paper, The Durable Internet: Preserving Network Neutrality without Regulation, Tim Lee shows why regulation is not needed to preserve the good engineering principle he calls "end-to-end." His paper also shows how regulation intended to serve consumer-friendly ends is often captured and used by regulated industries to suppress competition and artificially raise profits, denying consumers the benefits of free markets.