Internet intervention: is Net neutrality necessary?

Will government regulation ensure an open and useful Internet for everyone?

Jake Parsley

The Internet, it would appear, has become something of a big deal. Consider the outcry when a tiny little corner of the Internet like Gmail crashes for a few hours, like it did last Thursday . Or the turmoil that occurs every time Facebook rolls out a new layout. The Internet has become such a prominent part of modern-day life that, in the rare moments students can actually get online over at the Law School, I have personally observed students surfing the web during class. In recognition of the importance of the Internet, the government, specifically the Federal Communications Commission or FCC, has decided that the Interwebs need protecting. âÄúThe rise of serious challenges to the free and open Internet puts us at a crossroads. We could see the InternetâÄôs doors shut to entrepreneurs, the spirit of innovation stifled, a full and free flow of information compromisedâÄù FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a speech to the Brookings Institution on September 21. âÄúOr we could take steps to preserve Internet openness, helping ensure a future of opportunity, innovation, and a vibrant marketplace of ideas.âÄù The purpose of GenachowskiâÄôs speech last week was to introduce some proposed changes to federal rules governing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to ensure that these providers, including huge corporations like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast, canâÄôt treat Internet users differently based on their web-surfing behaviors. Basically, the FCC is concerned that ISPs, who control the data transmission technologies that make Internet access possible, will abuse their power to reduce access to certain Internet applications, and the new rules are intended to prevent that. Genachowski specifically mentioned how ISPs in the past have blocked phone calls delivered over data networks, implemented technical measures to degrade the performance of peer-to-peer software sharing, and even denied users access to political content. GenachowskiâÄôs new rules would prevent ISPs from discriminating against Internet content or applications, and would force ISPs to be more transparent about their network management processes. The basic idea is that, as long as Internet users are involved in legal activity, ISPs canâÄôt mess with their service, no matter the content theyâÄôre accessing, or the bandwidth that theyâÄôre hogging. ThereâÄôs been a lot of praise for this new FCC proposal. Our own editorial board here at The Minnesota Daily said successful implementation would amount to âÄúa major win for consumers.âÄù Josh Silver, the executive director of Free Press, a nonprofit group that supports universal access to communications, applauded the FCC âÄúfor taking a strong stand to promote competition and consumer choiceâÄù in a September 21 press release . Of course, many corporations benefit from these new rules as well. A September 22 editorial in The Wall Street Journal called the new policy a âÄúbig political victory for Google and other Web content providers whose business model depends on free-loading off the huge capital investments in broadband made by others.âÄù ItâÄôs the ISPs that provide the backbone of the Internet, the editorial said, and other Internet-based companies benefit by using this backbone for a (relatively speaking) free ride. As you can probably guess, ISPs have been somewhat less excited about GenachowskiâÄôs announcement. For example, in a press release in response to the Brookings Institute speech, AT&T said U.S. wireless networks âÄúare facing incredible bandwidth strainsâÄù that require âÄúpro-active network management, to ensure service quality.âÄù Basically, the network is arguing that we have to limit the most extreme bandwidth hogs for the benefit of the rest of us. The statement also cited the intense competition in the ISP market and said that providers are discouraged from interfering with web users surfing habits because those customers could very easily switch to a competitor ISP if they disapprove of the tinkering. The press release also said that AT&T would be disappointed if the government decided âÄúto regulate wireless services despite the absence of any compelling evidence of problems or abuse that would warrant government intervention.âÄù In his speech, Genachowski said the FCC would do no more than is necessary to keep the Internet open. âÄúThis is not about government regulation of the Internet,âÄù he said. âÄúItâÄôs about fair rules of the road for companies that control access to the Internet. We will do as much as we need to do, and no more, to ensure that the Internet remains an unfettered platform for competition, creativity, and entrepreneurial activity.âÄù If Genachowski is sincere with this statement, I think heâÄôs struck the right balance in this situation. The Internet has become an important enough element in our modern society that I donâÄôt mind the government protecting our web access from profit-driven service providers. Even if ISP abuses have been few and far between, the idea that my service provider is capable of adjusting my connection capabilities for some as-yet unknown commercial gain is a scary thought. Bear in mind, this debate is far from over. For the FCC to implement these changes and bolster these net neutrality principles, the FCC must go through the extensive rule-making process required of federal agencies. First, the commission would have to accept GenachowskiâÄôs proposition. Then an extended comment period would follow, when all the world (including you) can air their approval of or disdain for the approved rule. The Internet is only going to become a more prominent part of the marketplace of ideas in the future, and the FCCâÄôs preemptive action will hopefully encourage participation in this corner of the marketplace without discouraging providers from continued innovation. Jake Parsley welcomes comments at [email protected]