Monday, December 20, 2010

"Net Neutrality" Might Happen Tomorrow...We Still Can't Agree On What it Is

The Federal Communications Commission is supposed to introduce and possibly vote on new "network neutrality" rules on Dec. 21, 2010, and whether one is in favor or not, we still cannot agree on what it is.

For some, it is a freedom of speech issue; for others a simple matter of network management, with many views in between. One can argue that the FCC already has addressed the "freedom of speech" issue, that Internet service providers already agree, and that there is in fact no need for new rules. The FCC's "Internet Freedom" principles are widely accepted, and one might argue that if anything needs to be done, it is a simple matter of enforcing infractions, as the FCC already has done, twice.
There is, in short, widespread agreement that users have the right to use all lawful applications.

Of course, even with recognized "freedom of speech" rights, there are permissible "time, place and manner" restrictions. Among the issues for network service providers is that all networks will, under extraordinary load, have to "block access to the network." Though some will disagree, such blocking is a network resource fact of life. When a server gets taxed, what does that server do? It blocks additional requests for access until it can clear the existing load.

Back in the old days, when telephone networks got overloaded, what happened? New callers were blocked from access. "All circuits are busy, please try your call again later." All servers work the same way.

But this is complicated. All networks get congested, some times. Outright access blocking is one way to deal with the load. Shaping the traffic and prioritizing traffic are other ways to deal with the overload problem.

Some net neutrality advocates believe such shaping and priorities should never be allowed. Some opponents say such blunt force rules will foreclose creation of new services that users might actually want to have access to. Some might want first priority for any active voice, video or conferencing session, with other classes of traffic, such as bulk software downloads, email or web surfing traffic given lower priority.

We might see, soon, what new rules the FCC wants to implement, and then we will see what is likely years of litigation about whether those rules can be enforced.

But no matter what form any new rules might take, they will not dispense with the need to allocate resources under conditions of congestion. One hopes any such rules will not reduce the amount of innovation. Ironically, one of the stated reasons in favor of strong net neutrality provisions is the preservation of an innovative climate. The problem with such rules is that they preserve freedom for some by taking it away from others in the ecosystem.

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