As expected, the chairman of the FCC, Julius Genachowski, announced today his agency’s support for Net Neutrality. Odds are if you’re reading us then you have a basic idea of what Net Neutrality is, but if not it can be summed up like this: ISPs will be expected to treat all data equally, and not favor 0s and 1s from Company A or Company B, no matter what sweetheart a deal may be in place. (Wikipedia has more, of course.) The idea is that, since all data is treated equally, consumers will have better, unfettered access to the sites and services they choose to support.
Let’s say you’re a Cool ISP customer. You like Skype, and you use it to call your sister in Europe and your brother in Maine. Cool ISP, however, has a deal in place with Mad Good VoIP, which pays Cool ISP x-number of dollars per year to be the “preferred” VoIP application of Cool ISP. In exchange for those dollars, Cool ISP makes it so that Mad Good VoIP network traffic takes precedence over Skype. So if you want to make a call on Skype, but there’s a whole bunch of people currently using Mad Good VoIP, then your call quality necessarily suffers (“waiting to connect,” for example). Then you quit using Skype because the call quality stinks. Then Skype goes out of business. Then Mad Good VoIP can rest on its laurels, knowing that it’s the only VoIP service in town worth a damn. Then it raises its rates just because it can. You see where I’m going with this.
Today’s announcement should, theoretically, prevent all of that from happening. The FCC already has four principals, but today it added two: non-discrimination (the above example, where ISPs can’t favor one application or service over another); and transparency. That last one should be of interest to BitTorrent users: here, ISPs will have to make available their methods and rationale for managing their network. That is, Cool ISP (or Comcast!) won’t be able to arbitraily limiit all BitTorrent traffic just because it doesn’t like the strain it puts on its network—who’s to say what you’re sharing over BitTorrent isn’t considered free speech? That said, ISPs shouldn’t be expected to “eat it,” as it were: if you’re downloading 300GB of data per month, you may well have to pay more for that than Grandma who checks her e-email once per day.
All of this, of course, is being done to preserve the “free and open” Internet. If the Internet is to remain an engine of commerce and ingenuity, it needs to be totally free and open. As Genachowski said, if the FCC waits too long to ensure the free and open Internet it will be too late. Since Internet traffic is roughly doubling every two years, steps need to be taken now to ensure the Internet doesn’t burst into flames.
What I liked most about the speech was when Genachowski mentioned, in passing, people who, for some reason, are against Net Neutrality, which, again, merely means the preservation of a free and open Internet. Net Neutrality isn’t government regulation for regulation’s sake; who’s to say that your ISP doesn’t want you writing comments to Right Wing Blog or Left Wing Blog because it doesn’t agree with the politics therein, so it blocks access to that site? You’re damn right you want Net Neutrality in that instance.
Basically, this is common sense at work. Enjoy the rest of your day, and if you’re not too busy, you may want to poke around the FCC’s new Web site, OpenInternet.gov.