Stephen Foley: Franken fumes over net neutrality rules
Friday 24 December 2010
US Outlook Al Franken, the comedian-turned-US senator who has become the leading political proponent of "net neutrality", says that new regulations adopted this week by the Federal Communications Commission are "worse than nothing" in the fight to protect the openness of the internet.
To recap, net neutrality is the principle that all internet traffic is treated the same. It ensures that telecoms companies can't block users from accessing some sites or using some applications, and that there can be no "fast lane" created for rich media companies. Without protection for net neutrality, internet providers can discriminate against lowly bloggers or new start-up companies, throttling the innovation and free speech that makes the web what it is.
I don't share Senator Franken's apocalyptic view. The FCC rules are not as strongly worded as they might be, but if implementation adheres to their spirit, they can adequately protect net neutrality in fixed-line broadband. They are much tighter than the loophole-riddled proposals published jointly a few months ago by telecoms giant Verizon and by Google, who betrayed the net neutrality principles it had promised to fight for. Under the FCC, while internet providers will have permission to make new bandwidth available for paid-for traffic, this will only be given if they also invest in expanding the neutral net.
The big problem with the FCC rules (as with the Verizon-Google compromise) is that they do not apply to mobile phone companies and to wireless devices, which could soon be the primary means by which we all access the internet. I have some sympathy with the regulator's argument that the technology is too early and the business too fluid to impose strict rules now. The important thing is that it hasn't foreclosed the possibility of imposing net neutrality on mobile in the future, and indeed has indicated that it will use other powers (such as conditions for wireless spectrum licences) to push the industry in that direction.
The next question is whether the whole FCC exercise is moot. Its legal authority to impose the rules it set out this week will have to be tested in the courts, and will probably also be challenged in a Congress where anti-regulation Republicans are now in the ascendancy. Congress is where net neutrality's defenders must turn their fire, not on a regulator fighting the good fight as best it can.
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