Julius Genachowski, Chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission, today laid out plans to enforce net neutrality upon the internet. While the FCC is a US-only entity, fact of the matter is that “control” over the internet lies within the US, so whatever the FCC decides, it will affect the rest of the world.
Genachowski laid out the plans in an address this morning at theBrookings Institution in Washington. In summary, the existing FCC principles will be turned into rules, and two additional rules will be added. The existing principles are not rules, and Comcast and the FCC are currently in a legal tussle over whether or not the FCC actually has the authority to enforce the principles.
As such, the four freedoms, as they’re called (no, not those four freedoms), must be turned into official agency rules, so that ISPs know what they’re up against, and so that the FCC can actually enforce them. In addition, two new rules are introduced: non-discrimination and transparency. These rules would apply to both wired and wireless connections.
Non-discrimination means that ISPs are not allowed to throttle specific applications or protocols. The transparency rule states that ISPs must be “transparent about the network management practices they implement”. “Why does the FCC need to adopt this principle?” Genachowski asked, “The Internet evolved through open standards. It was conceived as a tool whose user manual would be free and available to all. But new network management practices and technologies challenge this original understanding. Today, broadband providers have the technical ability to change how the Internet works for millions of users – with profound consequences for those users and content, application, and service providers around the world.”
So, is this a form of governmental control over the internet? Not exactly; it’s more governmental control over those who provide access to the internet – a subtle, but crucial difference. In his speech, Genachowski put it like this (very eloquently worded):
This is not about government regulation of the Internet. It’s about fair rules of the road for companies that control access to the Internet. We will do as much as we need to do, and no more, to ensure that the Internet remains an unfettered platform for competition, creativity, and entrepreneurial activity.
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 would shrink opportunities for innovators, content creators, and small businesses around the country, and limit the full and free expression the Internet promises. 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.
Some will seek to invoke innovation and investment as reasons not to adopt open Internet rules. But history’s lesson is clear: Ensuring a robust and open Internet is the best thing we can do to promote investment and innovation. And while there are some who see every policy decision as either pro-business or pro-consumer, I reject that approach; it’s not the right way to see technology’s role in America.
An open Internet will benefit both consumers and businesses. The principles that will protect the open Internet are an essential step to maximize investment and innovation in the network and on the edge of it — by establishing rules of the road that incentivize competition, empower entrepreneurs, and grow the economic pie to the benefit of all.
Over the years, we’ve seen increasing attempts by ISPs to make the internet less open. We already cited Comcast – they degraded BitTorrent traffic, which the FCC condemned. And, of course, we have wireless carriers prohibiting the use of VoIP clients on their networks.
It will be a long and difficult task to get these changes implemented, and it may fail. Google has already given support for the plan. Sadly, US ISPs were not yet available for comments on the matter.