New FCC regulations on network neutrality could change the course of U.S. Internet

By Keegan Clements-Housser, University of Oregon SoJC

FCC policy on network neutrality is in the process of changing, and the stakes are nothing less than the face and maybe even the purpose of the Internet itself in the United States.

It would be hard to find a more contentious issue, too. Net neutrality, the idea that access to and usage of the Internet should remain uninhibited and unrestricted by Internet service providers (ISPs), has been the issue front and center in the turbulent, ongoing debate within the information technology industry involving everyone from the ISPs themselves to governmental agencies seeking to protect the free flow of information, with even a few outside parties – like the lobbyists for the film and music industries – showing up to have their say. The debate has been centered on one key question – how much freedom with their Internet habits do customers get when paying for Internet, and how much control are ISPs allowed to exercise on the grounds of owning the infrastructure that consumers use?

To some in the information technology field, like Lane Community College computer engineering major Andrew Worthington, the answer is quite clear.

“[The Internet] is unique,” explained Andrew, “Anyone can say whatever they want, express whatever viewpoint they have, try to convince others of their viewpoint. It’s an incredible resource … if you start to impose limits, if you start to dictate what sites people visit, what applications they use, then that resource starts to lose its value.”

Andrew, and other computer savvy individuals just entering into the information technology field, are often the most vocal to insist that all Internet users be allowed to use the programs and visit the websites of their choosing – and they also have the most to gain or lose from any changes. Like many of his peers, he uses applications that consume a tremendous amount of bandwidth, such as µTorrent, a program that uses torrent file protocols to share files between users, a protocol made controversial by its very visible role in the fight between pirates and the film and music industry.

So far, the FCC seems to have been siding with the views espoused by Andrew and his fellows, as evidenced by the new “fifth principle” (which would prohibit discrimination against consumers by ISPs based on application usage or website choice) regulations proposed by FCC chairman Julius Genachowski last September – but that hasn’t made the debate within the industry any less fierce, or the impact of a decision one way or another less significant.

After all, if ISPs are required to abide by the “fifth principle” regulation and similar measures, they’ll have a plethora of logistical dilemmas on their hands as networks become bogged down, as well as missing out on financial opportunities by not being offered tiered Internet, or faster connections for websites that pay them more for the privilege. If they don’t, they potentially expose consumers to unfair business practices and a curtailing of some of the freedoms that have become synonymous with the Internet.

Even those with the same ideological standing as Andrew don’t necessarily find themselves siding with the proposed FCC regulations, however. It’s never been an easy process, balancing the ideological freedom of the Internet against the practical concerns of running it, as Ray Cesaletti, customer service representative of Emerald People’s Utility District (EPUD) and one-time Internet guru for EPUD’s Eugene Free Network can tell you, and usually practicality trumps idealism.

“They used to call it traffic shaping,” Ray said, “[It’s] where you prioritize certain traffic. It’s been done for a long time, you know – small networks do that so that business isn’t hampered by people who use more than their share.”

Even though Ray doubts the motives behind many of the efforts by larger ISPs to undermine network neutrality – “They just want to control things for money,” according to him – and even though he wishes the Internet could be as free of restrictions as Andrew would have it be, he also seems resigned to the fact that practically speaking, even the big ISPs are on to something, much less a smaller provider like his own.

“If you ask me, you have to,” said Ray, “If someone is using more than their share – if more than one person is using more than their share – then you have to [throttle bandwidth], because if you don’t, everything goes down. There just isn’t enough to go around like that.”

With the way things are being set up by the FCC today, he adds, something like the “fifth principle” would never work – or at least, not be enforcable. A better equilibrium has to be reached.

So how is that balance supposed to be struck? Michael Zahendra, a former system and information manager for the Internet security company Symantec, might have an answer if the FCC moved back toward considering broadband Internet to be a public utility rather than an information service. That answer is Public Utility Commissions, or PUCs – organizations with local, legal say in the deployment of Internet infrastructure and its usage, and with that a requirement for transparency on the part of ISPs in their methods. In other words, he thinks they’d keep everyone honest.

“Right now it’s not an honest situation,” said Michael, “You have these extremely powerful corporations hijacking the legal process with armies of lobbyists and special interest groups, and PUCs would give local communities a chance to have a say in how their Internet was going to come to them. It’d also allow them to see the realities of running a network, and would allow them to work with ISPs to make sure that they got their Internet as they want it without the ISPs being run out of town because of costs.”

In regards to the “fifth principle” of the FCC?

“If we had PUCs, companies would never have to worry about needing to discriminate,” Michael continued, “Their communities would either pay more to make up for it or come up with some other solution. Network neutrality as it should be.”

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