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Net Neutrality

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 “Net Neutrality” is a term from way back in 2005. A Neutral Internet allows all information to flow freely without prejudice based on content or destination.  This is how the Internet works today.  For example your streaming audio, search engine queries, online shopping, IP phones, email, document transfer traffic are currently all routed with the same priority as anyone else across the Internet.

In a non-neutral network, the content or destination of the traffic would be inspected.  Then, based on who was inspecting and what they found, a determination would be made as to what sort of priority, if any, this traffic would receive. Here are some examples:

• In 2004 an ISP called Madison River stopped all rival Internet Phones Services from working on their network.
• In 2006, AOL stopped all traffic to a site critical of AOL called www.dearaol.com

Today, Net Neutrality is a political and legal mess wherein Cable and Phone companies are going to lobby (pay off) government officials to pass laws that will allow the Cable and Phone companies to raise rates for Internet access by charging based on what sites you are going to and for the speed with which you would like your communications to travel across the Internet. This would be in addition to the fees users currently are paying for Internet access where there is already a sliding scale for bandwidth.

Much of this furor stems from the FCC reclassifying DSL broadband Internet access as a data service and not a communication service.  This complicated matters because there are relatively few rules governing the sale of data services.

There are now two basic camps.  Those such as Comcast, Cablevision, Verizon and AT&T who say we need a non-neutral, tiered service model. Invariably their argument is that a surgeon doing remote robot surgery across the Internet shouldn’t be sharing bandwidth with “myspace” downloads while trying to save a life.  (This is technically untrue as these surgeries use dedicated direct lines and do not use the Internet, but it makes for a fabulous sound byte.)

The side for Net Neutrality consists of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, high tech companies and dozens of first amendment groups. They say the filtering will be too cumbersome and ripe for corruption. They see this as a power grab by money-hungry Cable and Telephone companies.  What unlikely bedfellows both camps have found!

To “fix” this, the House of Representatives came up with a bill called HR5252 aka the Cope Act.  It’s hard to say what the results would be if this bill had become law as it included many different pronouncements. HR5252 has enough disparate rambling in it that everyone will find sections to hate, but in general it was against Net Neutrality.  For example:

• The bill allowed cable and telephone companies to set up national franchises so that they no longer have to go from town to town negotiating access with local authorities.
• The bill also allowed each town to setup its own ISP. (Naturally Cable companies have filled a suit claiming that municipalities should not be allowed to compete in Interstate Commerce)
• The bill allowed local towns to collect 5% from pay per view sales in their jurisdiction.

In May 2006, not wanting to be left out of the limelight or to miss an opportunity to lunch with lobbyists, the Senate introduced “The 2006 Net Neutrality Act”. This was then followed by a slew of other bills.   

The Senate and the House were hoping to each pass their respective bills in 2007 because that would have allowed them to do what they really wanted to do: meet in a closed session to “hammer out” a final bill out of the limelight where each can fight for his lobbyists’ needs and then later claim to have nothing to do with it.  However, due to excessive wrangling this never came about.

The wrangling continued throughout 2008 when the FCC published guideline for the telecommunications industry stressing that there should be no throttling of Internet traffic. 

In February, 2008, the House introduced HR5353 "To establish broadband policy and direct the Federal Communications Commission to conduct a proceeding and public broadband summit to assess competition, consumer protection, and consumer choice issues relating to broadband Internet access services, and for other purposes."

In August 2008 the FCC upheld a suit against Comcast, the largest cable company in the US, ruling that it was illegal to prevent its subscribers from using file-sharing software.   The FCC said that it wishes to set a precedent in support of Net Neutrality unless there was a good reason to throttle specific traffic.  HR5353 went nowhere in 08 but it has been reintroduced in 2009.

This past weekend, the Obama administration has brought the issue closer to the limelight by announcing that it was instructing the FCC to review its Net Neutrality rules in favor of the free and unencumbered flow of information for all and to publish another set of guidelines.  Naturally we will have to compare stated intent with actual results.

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