By now, you may have heard about the recent case concerning Net Neutrality. It got a lot of air time on the geek sites. Most of it was fairly accurate, some hyperbolic. There are more than a few who termed it Bad News for the cause of Net Neutrality. From where I’m standing, though, the decision looks like Good News for the cause. I’ll tell you why.
First, let’s take a look at Net Neutrality. Wikipedia has a decent article on the subject. If you have the time and feel so inclined, give it a read. For the rest of you, I’ll give it to you in a nutshell:
The internet is still fairly new, and therefore so are Internet Service Providers (ISPs). At the onset of general, commercialized internet availability, ISPs simply provided a sort of blanket access. For the most part, internet access was largely just a question of on or off. In the early days (those dark but exciting days of dial-up), customers were often charged by usage – you may remember offers of so many minutes per month for a flat fee. Much of this eventually graduated into unlimited usage, a move that pretty much solidified with the advent of widespread broadband. And until fairly recently, this was the status quo.
For the providers, however, the status was not as quo as they would have liked. The idea of charging general, flat fees put a serious twist in their knickers. Especially because these newer ISPs were often utilities (phone and/or cable companies) that were used to fleecing customers in a highly detailed fashion. So they focused their energies into devising new and seemingly justified ways to charge their customers more.
What they came up with was a service-based model. The idea here is that some internet usage (the ‘service’) uses more bandwidth and therefore should cost more. Streaming video uses more bandwidth than sending email (the argument goes), so shouldn’t the person streaming video pay more than the person sending email?
For those of you wondering, the answer is an emphatic no. There are a variety of reasons for the fat letters, but I’ll only address my two favorites. The first is that the connection you are paying for is already limited. You’re already paying for a certain amount of bandwidth, and I’ll guarantee that very few of you ever approach it. And in most cases, you’re not always receiving the bandwidth you think you’ve been promised (read the fine print). The second – and far more important reason – is that the only way your ISP can know whether you are sending email or streaming video is if they stick their noses where they don’t belong.
And yes – you all know my position on privacy and the internet. While there is no real privacy on the internet, this does not mean we should invite further invasion from our ISP.
Anyway, the various ‘service-based’ pricing schemes proposed are called tiered service by the ISPs. They’re called price discrimination by those who oppose them. And Net Neutrality is the idea that pricing by content and/or service (by any name) is a basic violation of our rights.
Okay. Now let’s move on to the recent case. If you’re so inclined, you can read the decision yourself (PDF). The upshot is that a few years back, some Comcast customers found that their bandwidth was being throttled because they were sharing files peer-to-peer. A couple of Hey-Corporate-Dirtbags-Americans-Have-Rights type organizations got involved, as did the courts and the FCC, and Comcast got spanked.
Although Comcast complied with the ruling, they also challenged it, the result of which is this recent decision. And what the actual decision amounts to is simply this: That the FCC does not actually have the authority to regulate an ISP’s network management practices.
This decision has been regarded by many as a blow against Net Neutrality. I disagree, because I can’t really convince myself that taking control of internet service away from the provider and giving it to the government would constitute any sort of victory for Net Neutrality. Especially when we look at the details.
The original ruling presumed the FCC’s authority over ISPs based on The Communications Act of 1934 (that’s right – 1934), specifically the vaguely-worded 4th Section of said Act, which states:
The Commission may perform any and all acts, make such rules and regulations, and issue such orders, not inconsistent with this chapter, as may be necessary in the execution of its functions.
This, despite the fact that a previous ruling (previous to the Comcast ruling – later than the Act of 1934) found that:
cable Internet service is neither a “telecommunications service” covered by Title II of the Communications Act nor a “cable service” covered by Title VI.
This recent ruling was about the FCC and its authority. In the end, absolutely nothing was decided on the subject of Net Neutrality. And I would argue that the FCC being no longer considered to have regulatory authority over internet service based solely on a vaguely-worded, ill-defined, 80-year-old Act is rather a victory for Net Neutrality.
It’s not that the FCC shouldn’t be thrust into the role of watchdog for Net Neutrality, it’s just that they should only do so if they themselves are subject to rules that are written specifically to address the issues at hand.
It’s a very, very bad idea to give a government agency a free hand.