The news is out that the FCC plans to take a more formal stand and formulate specific rules related to Net Neutrality. This is one of Obama's campaign promises, so this turn of events is not particularly surprising. My first reaction to the news was along the lines of 'That sounds like a good thing.'
But now that the reports have begun to trickle in about what this might really mean in practice, I'm starting to get more and more worried about the implications.
Depending on the source, 'Net Neutrality' has been used to mean one or more of the following:
- Definition #1: No internet service provider may restrict or in any way throttle traffic passing through their network based on the origin or destination of that traffic.
- Example: AT&T would not be allowed to throttle traffic between my home PC and YouTube, even if I stream way too many videos.
- Example: EarthLink would not be allowed to give preference to traffic between my home PC and Google.com because they have a search revenue sharing agreement with Google.com (and not with Microsoft's Bing.com).
- Definition #2: No internet service provider may restrict or in any way throttle traffic passing through their network based on the type or class of traffic.
- Example: Comcast would not be allowed to throttle the Skype-protocol traffic flowing over its network, regardless of where that traffic originated or terminated.
- Example: PacBell would not be allowed to throttle the BitTorrent-protocol traffic flowing over its network as it transits between my home PC and some other network or host.
These both seem like very noble goals and intentions. There is always the straight forward libertarian argument against any such governmental intervention in the operations of a private business - but I am going to ignore that one for now (despite the fact that I mostly agree with it).
I then put myself in the shoes of an ISP owner and operator, and think about scenarios such as:
"If one of my user/customers was using such large amounts of bandwidth to download fully legal BitTorrent files (Linux CD images, for instance) that the experience of my other customers was negatively affected, would I be allowed to throttle the traffic of that one excessive user?"
"If I were approached by Hulu.com with the following offer: Please give preferential treatment to traffic you transfer to/from our website so that our users can watch movies in high-def without interruptions. In exchange for this preferential traffic handling, we will give you $$$ per month. Would I be legally permitted to sign such a contract?"
Complicating issues like this lead me to believe that there will be no fair or just rule by which to judge the legality of scenarios like these. And they only get more complicated - especially in the case of cellular networks that are severely bandwidth limited - the more you ask.
In the end, I fear we're getting our FCC into a black hole of unintended consequences that will be very hard to escape from.