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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Net Neutrality Hole

So, the battle over net neutrality is now joined in the U.S., as reported here.

The draft telecommunications legislation just released by the U.S. House Commerce Committee has opened a hole. And when it comes to laws, a hole is an invitation to fight. The only thing the legislation does is name the referee: the FCC.

The bill offers no rules or even principles about net neutrality, which is fine by telecom and cable companies. In their view, net neutrality is an answer in search of a problem, at best. And what they don't say is that they want the absolute right to divide up bandwidth to create new revenue streams by charging Internet content providers for "faster" delivery (i.e., loading) of the websites.

Here's my question: why was it a problem to state a simple principle of non-discrimination when it comes to Internet access? And then let the FCC enforce the principle based upon actual cases or anti-competitive activity.

Even that would have been a step forward from the situation today.

The FCC has issued a broad statement (available here) supporting competition among network, application, service and content providers. But it has not spoken with enough clarity to ensure the key to competition -- level playing fields. Worse, the FCC has no power to enforce this policy anyway. So, it's not only hopelessly vague, it's also toothless.

What do telecom and cable companies say? They pledge not to block any Internet content. Block. That hardly sounds comforting.

Every open ecosystem, including the Internet, rests on a few important principles, which include accessibility and non-discrimination. Unfortunately, I fear, these are exactly the "choke points" that telecoms and cable companies want to control. How? By controlling access to bandwidth and discriminating among content providers. To my mind, this sounds like it will have plainly anti-competitive effects on content providers, especially smaller Internet companies and individuals who create Web content.

I worry that the Internet will start to look like my cable TV -- expensive with few choices and limited content, compared to the Internet.

Maybe I'm wrong. I hope so.

But is it crazy to worry about net neutrality?

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