Yesterday, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski spoke about his desire to keep the internet free and open. Most of his talk centers on the idea of "net neutrality." The principle broadly states that internet access should be unencumbered. To most consumers, this probably sounds wonderful. To most internet providers, it probably doesn't. They'd rather have control over the data. This is a complicated issue, with lots of moving parts, but I'd like to focus on the principles of net neutrality that Genachowski explains, especially a new one.
Towards the second half of his speech, he turns to what he considers to be the six principles of net neutrality. The first four were more well-known:
Network operators cannot prevent users from accessing the lawful Internet content, applications, and services of their choice, nor can they prohibit users from attaching non-harmful devices to the network.
I think those are at least relatively uncontroversial, despite the fact that they aren't always followed. For example, Genachowski says:
Notwithstanding its unparalleled record of success, today the free and open Internet faces emerging and substantial challenges. We've already seen some clear examples of deviations from the Internet's historic openness. We have witnessed certain broadband providers unilaterally block access to VoIP applications (phone calls delivered over data networks) and implement technical measures that degrade the performance of peer-to-peer software distributing lawful content. We have even seen at least one service provider deny users access to political content. And as many members of the Internet community and key Congressional leaders have noted, there are compelling reasons to be concerned about the future of openness.
It sounds to me like he's not-so-subtly talking about Apple's decision not to allow Google Voice on its iPhones. A while back I noted one angry column reacting to this decision by Andy Kessler. He noted that, eventually, there won't be voice, text, music or TV, just data. I think that's right. What AT&T, Apple and others need to do is price their plans in this manner. Instead of, say, $40 per month for voice and $30 for data, plans will eventually just be all inclusive of whatever kind of data for $70. The question, of course, is whether that data plan is priced to be unlimited or based on usage.
The second complaint in that quotation -- when internet providers deny access to political content -- is completely unacceptable. Censorship has no place on the internet.
Then, Genachowski introduced the last two principles:
The fifth principle is one of non-discrimination -- stating that broadband providers cannot discriminate against particular Internet content or applications. This means they cannot block or degrade lawful traffic over their networks, or pick winners by favoring some content or applications over others in the connection to subscribers' homes. Nor can they disfavor an Internet service just because it competes with a similar service offered by that broadband provider. The Internet must continue to allow users to decide what content and applications succeed.
The sixth principle is a transparency principle -- stating that providers of broadband Internet access must be transparent about their network management practices.
Why does the FCC need to adopt this principle? The Internet evolved through open standards. It was conceived as a tool whose user manual would be free and available to all. But new network management practices and technologies challenge this original understanding. Today, broadband providers have the technical ability to change how the Internet works for millions of users -- with profound consequences for those users and content, application, and service providers around the world.