Monday, September 26, 2011

Net Neutrality Regulations set to take effect November 20

The FCC finally is publishing its long-awaited Net Neutrality rules. When they announced them last December, Verizon and jumped in and sued to stop them right away. The court said, there weren't any regulations yet to sue about, because they were merely proposed regulations, and Verizon should comment on them, not sue.
But the comment period is over, and the regulations were published last Friday. (that link takes you to a nice, brief article in PC World that summarizes the regulations and gives a bit of history on how the regulations came to be, as well as including a link to the Federal Register itself) Most commentators expect Verizon and others to sue again to block the regulations. We will see what happens.
"Net neutrality" is a principle that states that all internet traffic should be given equal treatment by internet access providers. There is a desire by providers to ration traffic, and create fast and slow lanes. And there are some rational-sounding arguments, if the entire network's traffic is being slowed by a handful of heavy users' demands. But the fear is that a lack of transparency in the practices will allow the providers to use their power to favor their own traffic (think of Comcast), over competitors, to charge more for premium service, or to disallow certain types of traffic that they disfavor, like large downloads of video. What triggered the FCC to issue the regulations was Comcast throttling any BitTorrent traffic passing over its network. The FCC tried to censure Comcast, which appealed to a court. The court ruled that since there were no regulations barring such behavior, the FCC had no grounds to penalize Comcast. The FCC decided to write some regulations on the issue.
The regulations that finally made it through the process, are moderate, and focus on transparency as opposed to trying to completely bar providers' control of traffic:
As written, the rules do three broad things for customers: * Add transparency to how broadband providers--both wired and wireless--manage networks * Prohibit wired broadband providers from blocking lawful content, applications, services, and non-harmful devices. Wireless providers are also barred from blocking lawful websites or applications that compete with voice or video services. * Forbid wired broadband providers from discriminating in the transmission of lawful network traffic.
(from PC World "FCC Publishes Net Neutrality Rules," By John P. Mello Jr., Sep 23, 2011). Note the different rules for wired compared to wireless customers. Also note that a provider can slow ALL the traffic on their network at peak times, as long as they don't discriminate by either type of material or the sender (like BitTorrent).
The FCC commissioners who voted on the regulations last year broke down along party lines -- three Democrats voted for, and two Republicans voted against. One of the Republicans has since left the FCC and gone to work for Comcast. Many Republicans in Congress are decrying the regulations and vowing to pass legislation to block the new rules. President Obama has promised to veto any such law, according to an article by Reuters.
On the other side, consumer activists are just as disappointed in the regulations, praising that as a starting point, but wishing for much stronger regulations. Public Knowledge made a short statement, to that point, and urging Congress to allow litigation to move forward, to "resolve intricate legal issues without political interference." Corporations have poured a lot of money into Congress on this matter. The Associated Press reports that AOL
spent $130,000 lobbying the federal government during the second quarter on issues such as Internet regulation, computer security and privacy, according to a quarterly disclosure report. That's less than the $141,300 the New York-based company spent in the first quarter. AOL didn't report lobbying expenses for the year-earlier period.
Here is a terrific "What it means to you, the consumer" from PC Magazine, written last December, when the regulations were first proposed. The article is still very good and worth reading. Net Neutrality rules will certainly affect ALL users of the Internet, so pay attention to what is happening!

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