January 7, 2010 By Chad Vander Veen
In the epic battle between giant corporations and pirates of digital media, the latter faction has struck a severe blow with the help of regulators at the FCC. Bureaucrats soon will pen regulations that will keep the Internet free forever from -- well, regulation. Meanwhile, Internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast and AT&T will slink back to their caves to bemoan their inability to further mine profit from customers.
Such a description of the network neutrality debate is clearly a gross oversimplification of what's in reality a complex problem. If you listen to net neutrality advocates, ISPs are described as aspiring digital gatekeepers out to wring every last cent from innocent consumers. ISPs, on the other hand, have had a terrible time crafting a countermessage -- their best attempt has been claiming that they want only to reinvest profit into building more broadband.
Net neutrality is an important issue, as it may well determine the future of the Web. And with the FCC's October 2009 notice of proposed rulemaking regarding network neutrality regulation, it would seem the grass-roots activists have defeated their corporate adversaries. Although there aren't any written rules yet, some worry the federal government is claiming power it doesn't possess to regulate the Internet in a manner that's far worse than what Time Warner or AT&T would even consider.
The core of net neutrality is the notion that no one should be "in charge" of the Internet, yet its advocates have gravitated toward the idea of endorsing some sort of government regulation to ensure neutrality. That very concept, however, is counter to network neutrality. In a perfect -- and perhaps improbable -- world, the Internet would regulate itself.
"There are two entities we want to keep their hands off the Internet," said Jennifer Granick, civil liberties director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights advocacy. "One is broadband providers and the other is the government. We're in a situation where no one wants broadband providers to discriminate and tell consumers what content they can receive and what applications they can run. But no one wants the FCC to do that either."
The net neutrality debate has been going on for years. It reached a high (or low) point when in 2006, then-Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska clumsily explained the Internet was like a "series of tubes." Despite Stevens' primitive grasp on Internet architecture, as a metaphor, his description isn't entirely without merit. ISPs argue that without the ability to practice network and application management, the "tubes" will get clogged by users who move bandwidth-intensive data, such as video, on the network. What upsets network neutrality advocates is that this network management is likely to take the form of "traffic shaping" -- where content providers that have struck deals with ISPs will be made "more available" to users than rival content providers that haven't agreed to a pact.
Net neutrality advocates say the federal government needs to regulate what kind of network management is acceptable and what kind is essentially extortion. This would prevent, say, Time Warner's Internet customers from not being able to access content that competes with Time Warner. The demand for oversight grew to a fever pitch when, in 2007, Comcast was caught red-handed throttling peer-to-peer traffic, which typically involves large file exchanges like BitTorrent. Comcast never told customers it was managing traffic in such a way, prompting outrage when the practice was discovered. After the FCC ruled Comcast's practices were discriminatory and invasive, the agency banned throttling as a form of network management. Comcast, meanwhile, set about creating new, open network management principles that largely have been well received. Since then, an uneasy truce has existed. But with the election of President Barack Obama and the change in management at the FCC, the issue is once