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FCC Chairman says "Yes" to Net neutrality

Monday, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski delivered a major address at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, laying out his vision of an open Internet. He also talked about the many ways that an open Internet spurs innovation of all kinds.

In the past, the FCC has based their rulings about the Internet on fourprincipals. These principles can be summarized as: Network operatorscannot prevent users from accessing the lawful Internet content,applications, and services of their choice, nor can they prohibit usersfrom attaching non-harmful devices to the network. The FCC Chairmanadded two more principals aimed at making the Internet more open to allapplications and users.

FCC headquarters in Washington, DC.

The debate over so-called "Netneutrality" began heating up about three years ago when congressionalleaders first held hearings on potential laws to ensure that Internetservice providers couldn’t manipulate traffic throughput. The Netneutrality debate has big name opponents squared off against eachother. On one side are open Internet companies like Google who areopposed by broadband service providers such as AT&T, VerizonCommunications, and Comcast cable, all of which strongly oppose any newrules governing network management.

Genachowski said thatcarriers should not be allowed to favor certain types of content orapplications over others and that they could not degrade traffic ofInternet companies that offer services similar to those of thecarriers. Genachowski said that carriers would retain the rights tomanage their networks and that nothing in the rules would stop carriersfrom ensuring that "very heavy users do not crowd everyone else out"during peak traffic hours.
Julius Genachowski
Genachowski sited a specific example of unannounced peer-to-peer Internet traffic control by an ISP. This was last summer, when the FCC barred Comcast from using peer-to-peer traffic management practices that target individual protocols for slowing or blocking. In that particular case, Comcast sent TCP RST packets to users who were uploading large files, telling them that there was an error within the network and that a new connection would have to be established.

Wireless carriers, which have been among the fiercest opponents of such regulation, continue to restrict what kind of data travels over the airwaves they control. For example, earlier this year, AT&T restricted an Internet-phone service from Skype so iPhone users couldn’t place calls on AT&T’s cellular network. At the time, AT&T cited network congestion concerns.

Genachowski said that the FCC cannot afford to rely on happenstance for consumers, businesses, and policymakers to learn about changes to the basic functioning of the Internet. He added, "Greater transparency will give consumers the confidence of knowing that they’re getting the service they’ve paid for, enable innovators to make their offerings work effectively over the Internet, and allow policymakers to ensure that broadband providers are preserving the Internet as a level playing field."

Large broadband providers argue that imposing new rules would prevent them from managing their networks. They also argue it would prevent them from introducing tiered pricing to their service line-up.

Genachowski addressed these issues in his speech as well. He assured service providers that the FCC would examine violations of these Net neutrality rules case by case. He also said that the rules are not intended to prevent network operators from handling congestion on their networks. He also said that service providers could introduce new tiered services, so long as there is enough Internet capacity to allow for open access to the rest of the Internet.

Genachowski said, "I recognize that if we were to create unduly detailed rules that attempted to address every possible assault on openness, such rules would become outdated quickly." He was emphatic when he said, "But saying nothing – and doing nothing – would impose its own form of unacceptable cost."

Genachowski also made it clear that the Net neutrality rules he plans to make regulation will be applied to wireless provider, too. "It is essential that the Internet itself remain open, however users reach it," he said. "The principles I’ve been speaking about apply to the Internet however accessed."

Obviously, Google’s Silicon Valley and national support of the Presidential campaign of Barack Obama by their CEO Eric Schmidt, has paid big dividends for them. Monday, Google’s Vint Cerf, Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist, said on their blog that the Internet was built as an open platform, which means that the creators of new services and content do not need to seek permission from carriers or pay special fees to be seen online. He added that this "innovation without permission" effect has allowed countless individuals and companies to offer new applications to the world, businesses large and small to open shop online, and anyone with an Internet connection to share their opinions freely in the marketplace of ideas.

What will the new principles mean when it comes time to implement them? Will ISPs be less able to cooperate and control a DOS (denial of service)? Will a parent be stopped from controlling their children’s Internet content viewing? Because it is "legal" to move pornography across the broadband, will the new FCC regulation interpretation come in conflict with local laws about pornography? Clearly, we will have to wait for the rule making process to clarify what is, and what isn’t, acceptable with the new principles.

The FCC principles
Two new principles will join those original four and be formalized as official rules that will apply to both wired and wireless networks:

  • Consumers are entitled to access whatever lawful internet content they want.
  • Consumers are entitled to run whatever applications and services they want, subject to the needs of law enforcement.
  • Consumers can connect to networks whatever legal devices they want, so long as they do not harm them.
  • Consumers are entitled to competition between networks, applications, services and content providers.
  • Service providers are not allowed to discriminate between applications, services and content outside of reasonable network management.
  • Service providers must be transparent about the network management practices they use.