Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski has proposed two new rules designed to aggressively protect the free movement of online traffic by preventing Internet service providers from restricting web sites and other services on the Internet. The proposed rules would require carriers to practice “reasonable” network management and respect “net neutrality,” the principle that all web traffic should be treated equally. This would ensure, for example, that carriers would not be able to price or slow or speed up certain sites to favor their own content.

The FCC is following up on President Obama’s campaign promise to enforce net neutrality and used fairly grandiose rhetoric to explain the implications of its action:

“The rise of serious challenges to the free and open Internet puts us at a crossroads. We could see the Internet’s doors shut to entrepreneurs, the spirit of innovation stifled, a full and free flow of information compromised,” Genachowski said today in a speech at the Brookings Institution think tank. “Or we could take steps to preserve Internet openness, helping ensure a future of opportunity, innovation and a vibrant marketplace.”

While companies like Google and Amazon are thrilled about net neutrality, Internet service providers are pretty bummed. They argue that they already manage their networks with an “open” mentality and worry that an absolute requirement of net neutrality might hamper their ability “to manage their networks to keep them running smoothly, such as by preventing some large users from eating up so much bandwidth that it slows down service for others.” They also contend that, as they own the networks, they should have a right to control them, rather than having the government micromanage the way the Internet is run. Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA, the wireless industry’s trade group, explained the resistance by wireless companies to net neutrality rules:

We believe that this kind of regulation is unnecessary in the competitive wireless space as it would prevent carriers from managing their networks–such as curtailing viruses and other harmful content–to the benefit of their consumers.

While at first blush seemingly advantageous for all Internet users, the FCC’s actions are concerning. Requiring Internet service providers to provide net neutrality will afford them less ability to moderate bandwidth-hogging traffic. With AT&T already having problems maintaining adequate bandwidth for iPhone users in some cities, this FCC policy might make it even more difficult for companies like AT&T to get their bandwidth availability issues under control. However, Genachowski has said that his agency will consider this particular issue and will ask for comments regarding what would be “reasonable” in light of bandwidth availability concerns. The FCC is aware of the issue and will consider it in going forward with the rulemaking process.

George Gaskin

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