On December 21st, 2010, the Federal Communications Committee (FCC) in the USA has just voted to approve a set of rules regarding what is called “net neutrality.” This has been defined as;
“…the principle that basic Internet protocols should be non-discriminatory, esp. that content providers should get equal treatment from internet operators .”
At a basic level, this makes some sense. After all, isn’t one of the fundamentally principles of a democracy that citizens should have access to all the information they need in order to make informed decisions? And even more frightening, would we be happy if News International were to buy up all the independent ISPs and set things up so that CNN and BBC World Service were not available for streaming?
Well, nightmare scenarios constructed from “what-if” speculations make for great reading in the National Enquirer or whacko “Are Ghost Really Space Aliens Angels?” shows on the Discovery Channel, but in the real world things are a little more mundane.
The first question to ask is “Is there really a problem?” And it’s not just Mr. Sigmund “Nobody” Leominster who thinks this but one of the five members of the FFC commission, Meredith Baker. In a statement following the FCC’s release of documentation, Baker said;
“My dissent is based on four primary concerns: (1) Nothing is broken in the Internet access market that needs fixing. (2) The FCC does not have the legal authority to issue these rules. (3) The proposed rules are likely to cause irreparable harm. (4) Existing law and Internet governance structures provide ample consumer protection in the event a systemic market failure occurs. ”
The “problem” seems more to do with how the Internet is accessed by mobile devices and how companies that supply such access (Verizon, AT&T, etc.) should be recompensed. In short, how much are you paying to surf the web on your iPhone and should you be made to pay more for streaming Netflix movies while I just use it for e-mail?
The mobile companies want to get around this by charging on the basis of data tiers, which they are already doing to some extent already by charging data plans. But imposing “net neutrality” would treat all data as just data and restrict tiered pricing.
Which brings us to the second question; “Who should make the rules?” The FCC wants to be the rule-maker and thus the enforcer. And the FCC is a government agency – the same agency that slapped a fine on Viacom because Janet Jackson’s nipple was transmitted to millions of viewers – and how much more government interference do you want in your life?
This is why Meredith Baker included “the FCC does not have the legal authority to issue these rules” in her critique of the new rulings.
Republican Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee has also commented on the FCC’s vote:
“As a routine matter to regulate, support, or level the virtual marketplace, I don’t there is any need for the government to intervene. ‘Net Neutrality’ advocates, including the FCC Chairman argue that the government should intervene to prevent possible anti-competitive activities by Internet Service Providers. I don’t recall any other time that the federal government has established regulations to guard against hypothetical situations.”
Blackburn has also introduced a Bill (H.R.3924 ) aimed at restricting FCC interference with the Internet.
There’s an Orwellian irony to add to all of this: The full text of the FCC’s rulings is still secret! During the opening remarks of the meeting announcing the document, the Commission’s Chairman, Julius Genachowski, said that he was “proud of this process, which has been one of the most transparent in FCC history,” but so far, neither the original documents nor the final ones have been made available for public scrutiny. Apparently, the document is “being tweaked” before a final release. But wasn’t the announcement “the final release?”
So ultimately, the question you have to ask yourself with regard to the future development of the Internet is; “Who do I trust more; the government or the market?” It may not be much of a choice, because both have their pros and cons, but my money is on the market. Literally. At least with the market, I can switch my votes – dollars – at any time; with the government, once they announce new laws that curtail a freedom, it’s almost impossible to change back.