The FCC's Social-Networking Approach to Net Neutrality

Rob Enderle

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.

Wrapping Up

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.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Oct 28, 2009 1:46 AM a. asdf a. asdf  says: in response to Steven VanRoekel

Thanks for the reply, Steven. (Although I have no way to verify the name on the account, maybe Rob can do some kind of verification)

The point I'm trying to make is that comments have limited value in terms of legislation. For example, the most popular comment on the FCC site right now with 297 votes is;

"The public demands the strongest Network Neutrality rule possible, without loopholes. Millions of Americans have called for nothing less, and now the FCC must act decisively, putting the public interest first and not giving in to pressure from AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and their lobbyists."

How would that translate into a bill or set of proposals? There are issues on both sides of the argument. If you really want democratize the process give people the ability to propose bills, give comments on proposed bills, have a vote on all proposed bills to see which bill should be put up for a passing vote, and put the bill that passes nomination to a yes/no vote by the public. And have the FCC enact the passing bill.

Oct 28, 2009 2:47 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says: in response to a. asdf

That's Steven, we'd exchanged emails and I asked him to post.  One of the examples he gave me on my call with him earlier was on an earlier survey where the leading item was to legalize pot, which had nothing to do with the agency doing the survey.   Clearly somebody needs to be engaged in the process to make sense of the results, but at least they asking for feedback, if we can't provide feedback they can act on, well, that may be our problem. 

Oct 28, 2009 2:56 AM Steven VanRoekel Steven VanRoekel  says: in response to Rob Enderle

Rob is right. We are encouraging people to actually go into the NPRM and tell us how to reword sections and how to change what we have written in the best way to represent citizens, in addition to just voicing opinions on the substance. Rob makes great points in the article on how we should be more clear in a few areas (and are working on those). I agree we can't act on the things there now (there is lots of pent up emotion on this topic on both sides and I think this is a bit of an outlet for that), but we give people a long period to have a dialog and hope people do get to the substance. Administrative Procedures Act does not allow us to conduct a vote, but we do take feedback and then vote (we are comprised of a five-person bipartisan Senate-confirmed commissioners) on the new NPRM and the process can start all over again. -Steve

Oct 28, 2009 3:20 AM a. asdf a. asdf  says: in response to Rob Enderle

Thanks. Well, I posted my feedback. I would rather have a vote on the topic rather than a discussion post though.

Oct 28, 2009 11:23 AM a. asdf a. asdf  says:

What is the point of the social networking approach? They should either put together a panel of experts from both sides of the argument and have them draw out a bill. Or put the net neutrality bill to a public vote. Preferably both. I really don't see the value of a vote based comment system.

Oct 28, 2009 12:08 PM Steven VanRoekel Steven VanRoekel  says: in response to a. asdf

Edgeuser - The FCC is guided by the 1946 Administrative Procedures Act, which calls for the FCC to create a "Notice of Proposed Rule Making" (NPRM) which was released last week. (From: "Congress created the (NPRM) requirement to enlighten agencies--that is, to force them to listen to comments and concerns of people whom the regulation will likely affect." The FCC is applying Web 2.0 technologies to this (and future) rules to make it easy for citizens to comment on these rules (versus you having to hire a lawyer to do this, which was the case in the past).

We will also be doing public workshops and panels throughout the winter. Stay tuned to for those being scheduled.


Steven VanRoekel

Managing Director, FCC

Oct 29, 2009 3:13 AM a. asdf a. asdf  says: in response to Steven VanRoekel

I understand what you are trying to do with the site, but I think it could have much more potential than just a discussion forum.

"Administrative Procedures Act does not allow us to conduct a vote, "

I'm sure there is nothing in the Act that is stopping you from taking a nonbinding vote on a proposal. You can put up the proposal on the site, and allow people to vote on the bill or even sections of the bill. And then proceed accordingly. (However, I think you would need to do some kind ID verification so that people do not rig the system, maybe through a credit card check or something similar. )

By the way, I posted this concept on the site, and it currently has -5 votes. I never thought people would vote to not vote on something.

Oct 29, 2009 3:16 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says: in response to a. asdf

But, and on this last, wouldn't it be great if they could.  For instance, right now, I'd vote to not vote on healthcare reform.  I don't want it killed again, because I like the concept, but I don't want them to vote on something that is sure to fail.  

Oct 29, 2009 3:49 AM a. asdf a. asdf  says: in response to Rob Enderle

"I'd vote to not vote on healthcare reform."

Not quite sure what you mean there. If it were up to me, everything would be put up for a public vote. I don't see the reasoning in electing someone to vote for you. Just let me vote on everything, the technology is here, but people are slow to change.

Oct 29, 2009 3:56 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says: in response to a. asdf

OMG, what a mess that would be.   In a perfect world where people would research things on their own I'd be with you but in a world where FOX news is the most successful news program I don't really want to think what would result.   I'd want to make sure folks actually researched things first before giving them this power otherwise we might not have a planet to live on really quickly.  Here in California the success of private interest marketing on elections is truly scary. 

Oct 29, 2009 4:16 AM a. asdf a. asdf  says: in response to Rob Enderle

"where FOX news is the most successful news program I don't really want to think what would result"

Well, doesn't FOX news unofficially represent a party anyways? You would just be taking out the middleman. Moreover, I could argue the reason there is FOX news, is because we have a party/ideology based system.

"I'd want to make sure folks actually researched things first before giving them this power "

You mean like senators? Do you really think they research anything, or just vote along with their party?

Oct 29, 2009 4:35 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says: in response to a. asdf

Here in California we often pass votes down to the voters, the voters generally vote no, and nothing happens for a few more years.  My experience has been this doesn't actually work, but I agree, I'm not very happy with our representatives at the moment either. 

Oct 30, 2009 2:24 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says: in response to a. asdf

Actually no, eventually the change does happen it just takes an extra 2 to 4 years to bring it about.  Unfortunately the marority of voters here don't actually vote. 

Oct 30, 2009 12:53 PM a. asdf a. asdf  says: in response to Rob Enderle

"Here in California we often pass votes down to the voters, the voters generally vote no, and nothing happens for a few more years. "

That's exactly the way it should be. The alternative to that is a few party elders decide to pass a law that may or may not be supported by the majority of the voters. Which is pretty much the system we have now, which really isn't a democracy.


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