I've been rather confused about the entire concept of net neutrality for some time. This is because, like anything else that is bounced between political parties and large industries, the politics can get solidly in the way of the truth.
I quickly discovered that beyond the words "net neutrality" very little else was consistent about the various positions. Even Jon Stewart started to joke about this mess. Since the Federal Communications Commission is driving this effort, I thought it would be good to understand where it is coming from and had a nice chat with FCC managing director Steven VanRoekel who, coincidently, I'd met while he worked at Microsoft as managing director (kind of like the COO) there.
I was amazed at the amount of social technology and advanced survey techniques the FCC used to gather citizen feedback in what appears to be an honest attempt to do what is best for the country. In addition -- and unfortunately -- I also found some problems with the approach that likely need to be addressed. But I think the effort being put into getting feedback should mitigate them.
I walked away impressed, not just by what the commission is trying to accomplish, but by the smart use of technology to accomplish it. My hope is that efforts like this will eventually allow the U.S. government to use technology more intelligently and have it become one of the ways the country is made stronger.
Let's talk about this.
Adoption of Open Internet Principles
Boy, it is really hard to disagree with these concepts on their face: making sure citizens have access to content, applications and services; the ability to connect the devices they want to use to the network; the benefits of market competition; freedom from discrimination; and a transparent process.
Like all statements of direction, the devil is in the details, and the first thing that jumped out at me was that these principles are subject to four things. Reasonable network management; emergency communications; law enforcement and public safety; and national and Homeland Security all seem reasonable. However, when you look under "reasonable network management," you find two unreasonable conditions: prevent unlawful content (child pornography) and prevent unlawful transfers of content (copyright infringement).
Most service providers are not equipped to do either of these things, nor would we want the potential invasion of privacy that doing so would require. There are potential freedom of speech and enforcement issues that would make this very painful to implement, but it also likely would raise the exposure to a legal judgment against a provider who didn't implement aggressive policies to eliminate the unlawful content because not doing so would be seen as not meeting the "reasonable test." In other words, it would make attorneys really happy and insurance for content providers very expensive, while forcing these providers to walk a tightrope that is both changing and largely invisible.
Why Some Discrimination Might be Needed
In addition, the non-discriminatory clause, which rightly puts all content types on the same price schedule, doesn't appear to allow for latency. The reason latency is so important, or actually provisions allowing for premium services that eliminate it, is because latency kills hosted solutions. The emergence of the cloud as a desktop platform depends on people being able to pay for and get low-latency services so these applications will work. If they can't, the cloud, at least as it relates to the desktop, could be dramatically slowed as a lower-cost alternative to the traditional desktop. Services like OnLive which depend on low latency likely couldn't operate effectively and a new industry might be damaged or even killed.
Asking For Feedback
The good news is the FCC is asking for feedback and being relatively aggressive about helping people become informed so they can provide this feedback intelligently. It's worth going to the Open Internet Web site and contributing to the discussion here. The commission really does want our feedback and appears more than willing to listen and change if necessary. In addition, it is doing some really interesting survey work to not only pick representative samples of people to provide feedback, but to ensure these people are first educated on the topic so they don't provide feedback blindly (this is evidently driven by a Stanford professor).
I've generally believed that if we are unwilling to get involved, we really shouldn't complain about results, and since the FCC wants to listen, maybe we should spend a little time providing feedback. I did.
I was impressed with the extreme effort that the FCC and Obama administration were putting in to get feedback and to try and do the right thing. So often, in my experience, when government gets involved to fix something, I want to run in the opposite direction and hide until it's over. After talking to VanRoekel, who clearly has industry experience, I had the hope that this wouldn't be the case this time. But that will only happen if people get involved and, to use a very tired phrase, this means you.