For those of you living, shall we say, a more sheltered existence the debate around network neutrality centers around a new ruling that would, for the first time, allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to charge tech companies (or anybody) to send data at premium speeds, creating a de jure, two tiered  system for all internet users (slow and fast lanes).

Unsurprisingly the current crop of tech giants (Amazon, Google, Facebook, etc.) are quite happy with the current neutral offering, which makes sense, they have reaped untold profits from a system that treats everyone the same. Every budding startup company can also compete on the exact same footing as entrenched multi billion dollar corporation (theoretically). This is the pure, egalitarian, brilliance of the of the internet, zeros and ones are free to fly around the globe unencumbered by their source or destination.

With a system this successful who would want to change it? and why? Well companies like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T for a start, they are the gate keepers and that position would provide way more leverage if they could charge people differing arbitrary premiums for faster service. They could then in theory favor one company, who pays more, over another and rather than a market driven capitalist system we would trend toward an oligopoly.

New FCC CTO

Who the Federal Communication Commission (FCC)  puts in charge of anything is generally not news worthy for me, but the appointment of Scott Jordan to the position of CTO has some particular relevance, especially in light of recent heated net debates. His views on net neutrality have been published for some months now through the University of California and  can be generously described as nuanced (I prefer “on the fence”). Here is an excerpt (emphasis mine):

We argue that neither the extreme pro nor con net neutrality positions are consistent with the philosophy of Internet architecture. Our view is that the net neutrality issue is the result of a fragmented communications policy unable to deal with technology convergence. We develop a net neutrality policy based on the layered structure of the Internet that gracefully accommodates convergence. Our framework distinguishes between discrimination in high barrier-to-entry network infrastructure and in low barrier-to-entry applications. The policy prohibits use of Internet infrastructure to produce an uneven playing field in Internet applications. In this manner, the policy restricts an Internet service provider's ability to discriminate in a manner that extracts oligopoly rents, while simultaneously ensuring that ISPs can use desirable forms of network management. We illustrate how this net neutrality policy can draw upon current communications law through draft statute language. We believe this approach is well grounded in both technology and policy, and that it illustrates a middle ground that may even be somewhat agreeable to the opposing forces on this issue.

Our proposed layered approach to defining nondiscrimination rules that removes the need to define either “managed services” or what constitutes the “Internet portion” of a provider's offerings. We propose that any QoS mechanisms that an ISP implements in network infrastructure layers should be available to application providers without unreasonable discrimination. Requiring such an open interface can ensure that ISPs are prohibited from refusing to provide enabling Internet infrastructure services to competing application providers in order to differentiate the ISP's own application offerings, prohibited from providing Internet infrastructure services to competing application providers at inflated prices in order to favor the ISP's own application offerings, and prohibited from making exclusive deals to provide enabling Internet infrastructure services to certain application providers. It can also ensure that ISPs have the right to apply network management mechanisms that do not threaten a level playing field, and to make arrangements with consumers, application providers, and peering ISPs for Internet infrastructure services in a manner that does not conflict with the above goals.

Let me summarize:-

  • Allow ISPs to define Quality of Service (QoS) tiers through “management mechanisms”.
  • ISPs should make QoS tiers quantifiable and sellable to all companies.
  • ISPs cannot provide preferential treatment to any application providers.

Think About The Future

Please do not be fooled this is not net neutrality, neither is it a middle ground compromise. At a minimum this skews the net in favor of the internet winners of today in a wildly disproportionate way and it will disrupt grass roots innovation that occurs everyday. The FCC actively encouraged us to make our voices heard and I sincerely hope the response that brought down the FCC comments system was enough of an indication of our collective intent to protect the net.

The truth is that the deck is stacked against us, the Chair of the FCC (appointed by President Obama) was a lobbyist for the same cable companies who are attempting to overthrow the neutral net, together with this new CTO I am afraid the odds of a positive outcome are not great. As always, I remain hopeful.

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