Net Neutrality: 5 Things To Know

The Internet was never as neutral as you might think. Here's why the FCC is mulling stricter regulations for mobile service providers as well.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

September 17, 2014

4 Min Read

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EMP, Debunked: The Jolt That Could Fry The Cloud

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Over three million comments have been filed with the Federal Communications Commission over its "open Internet proposal," which critics contend will allow undesirable data discrimination, in violation of "Net neutrality" principles.

The FCC has proposed new rules governing broadband providers because a court rejected regulations put into place in 2010. The agency's proposal, issued in May by chairman Tom Wheeler, drew immediate and widespread criticism from many Internet companies and online activist groups because it left room for the paid prioritization for network data traffic. Opponents of the proposal argue that paid fast lanes for Internet data threaten small Internet companies and will tilt the Internet's somewhat even playing field in favor of large telecom companies, at the expense of everyone else.

Here are five things you should know about Net neutrality.

1. What does Net neutrality mean?
The FCC describes Net neutrality thus: "Under this principle, consumers can make their own choices about what applications and services to use and are free to decide what lawful content they want to access, create, or share with others. This openness promotes competition and enables investment and innovation."

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To put it more simply, Net neutrality requires that Internet service providers treat data traffic on a reasonably non-discriminatory basis.

2. Discrimination sucks! Why are we even arguing about this?
Because the issue isn't as simple it might seem. Service providers discriminate all the time when it comes to data traffic and we're better off for it. Treating all data equally would break the Internet. For example, service providers attempt to block data deemed to be malicious, to protect network and customer security. Also, service providers might manage their networks to hasten the delivery of time-sensitive data, such as streaming video, over non-time sensitive data, such as email. When video packets don't get delivered on time, video quality degrades or freezes. The problem regulators face is determining when service providers are behaving with anticompetitive intent or are creating conditions such as bandwidth scarcity that allow them to profit by selling solutions to the conditions they created.

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What's more, network operators connect to other network operators through peering agreements. Disagreements between these networks might lead to refusal to carry traffic, or degraded data transit. Assessing the networks' respective positions and the merits of their arguments tends to be difficult because peering agreements are generally not made public. Strong network neutrality rules require greater peering transparency.

3. What about mobile?
The FCC's proposed rules didn't originally include mobile broadband, but in recent months pressure has mounted on the agency to regulate mobile network providers, too. That's because wireless broadband has become far more prevalent than it was in 2010 when the FCC began rethinking its broadband regulation. On Tuesday, the FCC held a round-table discussion about whether to extend its rules to mobile providers. Google and Microsoft both have come out in favor of extending wireline rules to wireless companies. Wireless companies, on the other hand, would prefer to be treated differently.

4. How do Internet advocates want to see the Internet regulated?
The FCC is expected to rely on Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to regulate broadband Internet providers. At a mere two paragraphs, it directs the agency to promote competition and investment, but imposes only general requirements on regulated companies. Internet advocacy groups such as Public Knowledge and several members of Congress have asked the agency to rely instead on Title II to classify broadband providers as common carriers, subject to far more extensive requirements. Title II contains language that specifically forbids unreasonable network discrimination.

5. Why not just take a hands-off approach and let market forces sort things out?
For the same reason we don't have self-regulation for criminals, pharmaceutical companies, or airline safety. Self-regulation works only when the stakes and consequences are low. The Internet is too important to trust to companies that have already demonstrated their willingness to engage in data discrimination to advance business objectives at the expense of the public.

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About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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