As 2010 draws to a close, we take comfort in knowing that, at least for now, the Web remains open and free - a neutral net open to all, unconcerned with any specific URI or type of content.
If the Holiday season has had you too distracted to notice, the FCC made an important ruling that impacts net neutrality last week. The full text of the ruling (warning: big PDF) was only recently made available late last week and so in-depth analysis on the ruling has taken some time. I want to give a quick overview of what those rules were, and then describe the whole net neutrality situation from the perspective of someone who came of age around the same time that the web did.
Before we get started, if you have no experience with the topic of net neutrality, you might do well to start with this Guide To The Open Internet before reading the rest of the post. It might be a bit biased against Internet Service Providers (ISPs), but you'll understand the gist of the situation if you spend five minutes on that site.
The FCC's ruling establishes three primary rules for enforcing net neutrality on ISPs:
Transparency: Your ISP is allowed to regulate traffic by slowing things down during peak times, enforcing usage caps, etc., but it must disclose the ways it does so and how well or poorly their network is performing. Most ISPs would argue that they already do this, but the ruling makes it official. This part of the ruling applies to both fixed and wireless ISPs.
No Blocking: An ISP can't pick and choose which services it will let through or which sites it will allow access to, provided that the content is legal and "non-harmful", so while an ISP can do things like regulate spam and block child pornography, they cannot block Netflix. This part of the ruling impacts wireless carriers different from fixed, but only in that wireless carriers are not required to allow access to mobile broadband app stores. I'm not sure why this is important, but some net neutrality defenders are worried that this is a dangerous loophole on the increasingly-wireless Web.
No unreasonable discrimination: Under the FCC ruling, ISPs are allowed to manage their network however they best see fit, but this cannot include either discriminating against any a specific site, app or type of content. The FCC made it clear that this does not end the discussion on paid prioritization, but it seems to make it much more difficult. "It's a very dynamic marketplace so everything would have to be evaluated," the FCC official said. "I think there's significant concern about paid prioritization but it's not ruled out." This is the most important part of the ruling to me. Net neutrality defenders have been arguing that ISPs are intent on blocking Web content from other providers in favor of their own, or at least up-charging to use the external service.
I did not read this entire ruling myself, but rather summarized other summaries. Check out PC Magazine's description of the ruling for a bit more detail.
All in all, this ruling brings a small amount of clarity to a very confusing situation. While the legality of the ruling and the way it could be enforced remains to be seen, it seems to me like an encouraging step towards preserving an internet that is free and open.
For those of us who've grown up on the internet, this entire issue seems strange because we take the internet for granted. The internet is as fundamental a piece of infrastructure to our lives as electricity, running water, or roads - it's simply required for modern living and fundamental to the way we think. When an ISP is alleged to consider charging premium prices to visit certain sites or use certain services it simply doesn't make sense to us. It would be like letting consumers drive to Wal-Mart for free, but asking them to pay a toll to visit Target, or forcing you to take a longer much slower highway if you want to visit Best Buy. If I want to go to Best Buy, I just drive to Best Buy. There's a reason we call the Web an information "super highway" and not a "super toll-road."
Founder of the Web Tim Berners-Lee put this even more passionately when he said, "[g]iven the many ways the Web is crucial to our lives and our work, disconnection is a form of deprivation of liberty". And liberty it is - as Lee points out in his recent Scientific America article "Long Live The Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality", an internet connection has become a legal right for all citizens in Finland, and even here in the states we consider public access to be integral to the lives of our citizens who cannot afford to pay an ISP.
The other thing that makes all this a bit difficult for us to understand is that the parts of the Web that are most interesting are often the least curated, or at least they start out that way. Walled gardens of "premium content" are boring - if you need proof, just look at how AOL's doing these days (or maybe just what they're doing; does the AOL walled system even exist anymore?) The internet is valuable because it's innovative, and the innovative parts are the parts created by small companies and individual users. Sometimes these ideas turn into big things like Google and Netflix. Selling access to a limited portion of the Web is like selling a bicycle with square tires and telling me I'll have to pay more for real wheels. I'm only interested in the bike if it can, you know, actually go places.
I'll end this post with another great quote from Berners-Lee, whose entire article is really valuable reading for anyone who has a stake in the web:
"Now is an exciting time. Web developers, companies, governments and citizens should work together openly and cooperatively, as we have done thus far, to preserve the Web’s fundamental principles, as well as those of the Internet, ensuring that the technological protocols and social conventions we set up respect basic human values. The goal of the Web is to serve humanity. We build it now so that those who come to it later will be able to create things that we cannot ourselves imagine."
Happy 2010 everyone, and here's hoping 2011 will end with an even better and freer Web than we have today.