Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

Political pressure rises on FCC on net neutrality

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Pressure on the US Federal Communications Commission from opposition Republican senators to reconsider its desire to regulate for an open internet seems to be rising [registration required; limited viewing time].

Under the FCC’s approach, internet service providers will formally be compelled not to discriminate against (or for) web content or applications in terms of how they manage traffic on their networks, while they will also be required to disclose traffic management practices. Building on an apparent indication from the two Republican nominees on the FCC (of the five Commissioners) that they ‘had problems’ with the proposal, a number of Republican nominees have written, some jointly, to the FCC advising that the proposal is ‘counterproductive’ and runs the risk of damaging investment in the internet and of putting back the cause of improving internet connections in rural areas.

The letters request the FCC to delay the vote it is scheduling for next week on the proposal, raising the possibility of the proposal being approved on party lines. This would neatly encapsulate the debate in terms of the interests of ‘big business’ vs consumer freedom – not least since major ISPs are engaged in significant lobbying against the proposal.

I’ve blogged before on this issue, from the perspective of the difficulties in regulating for an open internet in the context of the huge growth in traffic volumes on the net, requiring traffic management policies – but this only arises in the context of a situation in which ISPs have come to own significant chunks of content or applications. Where this is the case – as it appears to be in the US – ISPs cannot be blamed for seeking to discriminate in favour of their own stuff;  this is more or less normal behaviour. The trick would seem to be in preventing ISPs from acquiring such a position in the first instance, thus allowing sensible traffic management policies to flow without fear of discriminatory behaviour.

Clearly, that’s not where they’re starting from in the US. A ‘first principles’ design of the internet would seem to need to require a separation of network provision from ownership of content and applications – but that is self-evidently not where we are either. Where there is an overlap, traffic management needs to proceed on the basis of open and transparent rules – and, at the same time, to deal more directly with the issue, ISPs need to be prevented from prioritising their ‘own’ traffic. This may well cut off (or, more probably, restrict) a revenue stream for ISPs – but to argue that this will militate against investment is clearly special pleading (on the grounds that revenues from content are likely to be low, albeit high margin). The FCC is correct in seeking to ensure that net access proceeds without favour.


Written by Calvin

15/10/2009 at 11:08 am

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