Friday, August 20, 2010

XN Grapples with Net Neutrality

All right, today I'm going to try and understand net neutrality. I have a vague concept of it but that is never sufficient. There are enough respectable authorities and wiser minds than mine weighing in on the topic that there's no reason not to have a better-informed opinion on the matter.

I'll start by stating what I understand about the issue. Net neutrality means that everyone has equal access to every website, and that Internet providers must provide equal access to every website. When Google/Verizon teamed up and the FCC lost jurisdiction to govern the Internet, it was projected that the scales would tip in favor of commodifying Internet service to the extent that websites who could pay impending service fees would necessarily receive better service than those that couldn't. This is a form of preferential treatment that would swiftly become exaggeratedly biased in a really unhelpful direction. Large corporations could facilitate undue attention to themselves, and independent sites would fall to the wayside. Information would no longer stand on its own merit and power would, as in all other human contexts, be distributed according to money as opposed to worth.

Now I'll read up on various sources and see how badly off the mark my aim has struck.

The EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) posted their own very helpful review of Verizon and Google's net neutrality proposal. In short:

  1. The prior concern was that FCC regulation would somehow enable corporations, Hollywood, and morality police with greater online influence. (I'll have to study that later.)
  2. Google/Verizon proposed "a narrow grant of power to the FCC to enforce neutrality within carefully specified parameters."
  3. Limiting the FCC to "case-by-case enforcement of consumer protection" is good, as it would inhibit the FCC's capacity as morality police.
  4. This would also "[exempt] software applications, content and services from FCC jurisdiction." (I'll have to study that later.)
  5. Establishing "standard-setting bodies" by an "independent, widely recognized Internet community governance initiative" is interesting but requires absolute transparency and accountability.
  6. Too much of the proposal's language was vague, like "reasonable network management" and "additional online services." Determining these likewise requires transparency.
  7. Differentiating standards between wired and wireless Internet service is an intellectual train wreck.
  8. Loophole: enabling "lawful" content without strictly defining what "lawful" means or connotes.
People I respect, respect the EFF so therefore I'm inclined to use their opinion as a kind of baseline, pending further information.

This particularly naive and reactionary commentary doesn't really assist the debate, but I'm reading it to see whether it contains anything of use. It suggests the premise that Google teamed up with Verizon simply to allow Google's content to load faster than anyone else's. That's a pretty slanted and simplistic summary of what sounds like, from most other perspectives, a complex issue. The columnist reverse-engineers a kind of Jack the Ripper theory of motivation and identity to arrive at the conclusion of a minor anti-trust infraction, as well as bemoan the FCC losing control of the Internet. He does not have the same understanding of the FCC or its interests that the EFF does, he is a strong proponent of federal government owning absolute control over the Internet (and much of the government has demonstrated a range of attitudes from nescience to obliviousness regarding the workings of the 'Net), yet he is an associate professor of Media Studies and Law. Huh.

This New York Times article reacts to the Google/Verizon proposal shortly after it was revealed and says it claims 1) ISPs would be prevented from providing advantages to Web content producers with money, and 2) the FCC "should have the authority to stop or fine any rule-breakers." Obviously, those rules need to be established first, but Google/Verizon have proposed themselves as advisors to regulators and lawmakers in this matter. The proposal also exempts wireless access (such as the Verizon Android) from the strictures of net neutrality, so that any online media partner with the company would likely receive preferential treatment, a concern common among all commenters on this development.
“I also recognize that there may be benefits to innovation and investment of broadband providers offering managed services in limited circumstances,” [chairman of FCC] said, adding that such services “can supplement — but must not supplant — free and open Internet access.”

Rebecca Arbogast, a telecommunications analyst at Stifel Nicolaus, predicted that the F.C.C. would probably demand that any net neutrality rules cover wireless, and that the details of any exceptions for specialized online services be made clear.
Sounds hopeful but ultimately vague.

The staff attorney at PublicKnowledge.org also wrote an insightful breakdown of the Google/Verizon proposal. He pointed out where Google/Verizon tried to differentiate broadband separate from wireless, underscoring the FCC's assertion that "the Internet is the Internet," regardless of access to it. And once again, what does "additional online services" mean? It is once again identified as a loophole through which may drive the large and heavy trucks of paid online prioritization. But the EFF thinks the FCC handling infractions on a case-by-case basis is a reasonable solution, while this attorney believes that relegates it to "a common law court" or "rubber-stamping industry-crafted settlements." He too seems to believe the FCC should total and exclusive power over the Internet.

So that's two legal authorities who differ from the EFF's opinion on this point. Interesting. How do we explain this: that the EFF lacks perspective, or that these legal offices have a vested interest in the FCC retaining control? I know too little about the matter currently--the former sounds wrong and the latter sounds like conspiracy theory.

Further down this rocky and briar-strewn path, Ars Technica iterates the worst of what the G/V proposal means and highlights the most negative reviews and critiques of it. They are likewise panicked that the FCC would lose control of the Internet. It increasingly appears EFF is alone in their view that this could be a good thing. Ars Technica also underscores the importance of protecting wireless Internet access as well as the gaping loopholes indicated in the other articles.

They also ran an article on Senator Al Franken and FCC Commissioner Michael Copps criticizing the G/V proposal. Franken took a shot at the FCC for dragging their heels on reclassifying ISPs as "telecommunications," rather than viewing them as "information" as they have for nearly a decade, and the commissioner accepted that, agreed, and resolved to correct this. That was interesting to read in a feel-good kind of way, though it didn't impart any actionable information or even distinctly point at a path the future might take.

Right now the net neutrality "debate" is a lot of vented frustration. People are stepping up to loudly seethe over what they dislike and what they condemn, but not even the most moderated voices have suggested anything concrete. It's all, "Watch out for this, watch out for that, but I have no idea where to go." Elements of the FCC seem willing to get their hands dirty, but how much of that is lip service? How much is, "God, I hope my subordinates understand what the hell's going on, because this is all way over my head"? It is significant to me that the Electronic Frontier Foundation seems to be unique among G/V's critics in that they see reduced FCC jurisdiction a potentially promising venture. I'm frankly stunned at how many critics actually believe the federal government should incontrovertibly possess Internet regulation, how they cannot conceive of how badly that could go (and I use "could" in the same sense they've prefaced all their "could" statements that wind up in an apocalypse).

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