The future of the Internet — at least how it’s used and structured in the United States — could be determined by a small group of federal officials this month.
That may sound overblown, but some consumer and industry groups insist the stakes are that high in a vote the Federal Communications Commission will take Dec. 21 to decide what rules it should enact to govern “openness” on the Internet and to ensure so-called net neutrality.
For consumer groups, the vote is about whether the Internet will end up looking a lot more like cable television — where the folks who provide your connection get to determine what content you have access to — rather than the traditional open Net. They’re worried that the rules, ostensibly designed to prevent that from happening, won’t go far enough.
The FCC has yet to publicly release the rules it plans to vote on. But commission Chairman Julius Genachowski last week laid out the principles they would incorporate. The rules, he said, would require
They also would bar service providers from slowing or degrading consumers’ access to any particular Internet service, although they would permit providers to manage their networks “reasonably” to block applications harmful to the network or prevent congestion.
While the rules target traditional landline Internet connections, some will extend to the wireless Internet connections consumers are making over smartphones or wireless 3G cards in their PCs. Wireless Internet providers would have to disclose how they manage their networks and would be barred from blocking access to particular sites or services.
The FCC proposed the rules in response to moves by some Internet service providers to block or slow access to particular services. The commission, for example, formally accused Comcast of degrading its customers’ access to file-sharing service BitTorrent.
Meanwhile, tech company Zoom last week accused Comcast of illegitimately barring subscribers from using its cable modems. And Level 3 Communications, which helps deliver Netflix’s online streaming video service, said Comcast threatened to block that service unless Level 3 paid Comcast extra.
The FCC has worried that because many consumers have a limited choice of Internet providers, those providers can serve as choke points for Internet content and demand that Web companies pay them extra to deliver their content.
Consumer groups argue that even the core landline provisions have loopholes. Allowing Internet providers to “reasonably” manage Internet traffic opens the door to letting them degrade access to competitive services, such as Skype or Netflix, under the guise that such services clog their networks.
Moreover, the rules as described by Genachowski wouldn’t prohibit either landline or wireless service providers from prioritizing certain traffic. That could allow them to create a fast lane for their own sites and services and those of selected partners who pay to access it.
Curtailing innovation wouldn’t be good for consumers or Web companies. And it wouldn’t be good for Internet service providers either.
As Genachowski argued in his statement last week, net neutrality and an open Internet are good for service providers as well as consumers and Web companies. New Web applications and services create consumer demand for ever-faster broadband. And faster broadband sparks innovation in new services.
Let’s hope that the rules the FCC ultimately ends up adopting preserve this virtuous circle — and the Internet we know and love.