Another Way the Internet is in Danger of Becoming "Less Free"

Proponents of Internet freedom have not had a good decade, in some ways. The principle that any person can communicate with any other person, using any application, has broken with the development of "private" Internets created by governments. 

And even when use of any lawful application is guaranteed and enshrined in policy or law, that has not prevented a sort of "regulatory creep" that sweeps more and more issues related to business relationships, terms and conditions of use into the broad arena of "Internet freedom."

Such disputes are difficult, to be sure. They remind me of the way "free speech" rights are framed. Historically, one might well argue, the right of free speech was guaranteed to speakers, such as those who owned printing presses, and not actually to "hearers" who wanted to read newspapers and pamphlets. 

Over time, the emphasis has changed, almost always in the direction of the notion that the right of free speech belongs to the "listeners, viewers or readers." Neither view necessary is wrong or right, but the understanding of "who" has the right is different.

Of course, we also have different notions of what "speech" is, as well, as it pertains to the protection of "free speech." Originally, free speech was deemed importance in relation to clearly "political speech," as that was deemed essential for democracy to work. 

These days, art and entertainment routinely are deemed to be "speech." Something like that seems to be happening now in the United States regarding Internet freedoms and rights. 

Communications, video entertainment and now Internet regulation tends to oscillate over the decades, from less stringent to more stringent, and sometimes from more stringent to less stringent. 

It appears we are headed for a "more stringent" swing of regulatory activity. 

For example,  Internet interconnection could be the subject of new Federal Communications Commission action, even if all the FCC says it is doing for the moment is "gathering information."

The FCC action comes after recent interconnection disputes between Netflix and Comcast, and Netflix and Verizon. 

The new issue for industry participants (including operators of networks as well as application providers) is whether historically non-regulated Internet interconnection will face new regulation, for the first time. 

In the "common carrier" framework, networks have a positive obligation to connect with other networks. What has not been strictly regulated, recently, are the terms and conditions that govern such business relationships between carriers, when exchanged traffic volume is unequal, or highly unequal. 

Those rules have not applied to the interconnection of Internet domains, though the established business rules are that "settlement-free interconnection" occurs between networks that exchange roughly equal amounts of traffic. 

When unequal traffic exchange occurs, "for fee" transit agreements have been the norm, but prices and terms and conditions have not been regulated. 

All of that would now seem to be on the agenda. That conceivably could meani a major change, with potentially big business implications. Ironically, any new "first time ever" new rules would represent less "Internet freedom" in some respects, even if that is the language that would accompany "less freedom."


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