Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Some further thoughts on net neutrality

A recent speech by FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn prompts some further consideration of net neutrality issues. Commissioner Clyburn was speaking on proposals to reclassify broadband, to refute the arguments that have been made against the FCC's proposed approach. She set out the three main arguments against the proposal as being:
  1. that the FCC should not embrace an old-style regulatory model created in the first-half of the 20th Century for monopoly voice networks, which is wholly inappropriate today;
  2. that there has been no so-called “market shift” that is allegedly necessary to trigger the ability for the Commission to reclassify services;
  3. that the proposed reclassification will create a new regulatory uncertainty.
She dismissed argument 1 by pointing out that the FCC's intention is in fact the reverse: its approach has been carefully crafted so as to ensure forbearance and avoid regulatory overreach. Argument 2 can, in her view, be refuted by the fact that such a market shift is not a requirement for the FCC to change course, provided a reasoned justification is provided. She also argued that the recent Comcast ruling was, in any case, indicative of a significant market shift in itself. Finally, she argued that there is no such thing as regulatory certainty: reclassification would in fact provide much greater regulatory predictability that the current situation, in that it would provide clarification on where all parties stand, providing greater incentive for investment as a result.

Complicated stuff, to be sure, which reminded me that the issues around net neutrality are similarly entangled and intertwined, and can be similarly characterised into three strands:
  1. Consumer aspects and concerns - for example, issues around throttling traffic and transparency of ISPs' traffic management approaches and policies (clearly FCC vs Comcast fits right in here).
  2. Commercial and competition issues - for example, ISPs' concerns over the cost of upgrading their networks to deliver BBC iPlayer or YouTube traffic, when they receive no revenue from such services - should they? There are competitive issues here too - for example, is regulation required to ensure Sky broadband subscribers don't find their access to the BBC iPlayer is restricted/throttled, while the SkyPlayer works just fine? This is an entirely hypothetical rather than an actual example I should add!
  3. Infrastructure and architectural issues - similar to the previous strand in a way, where large providers (Google, Akamai) have built their own global infrastructure to carry their or their subscribers' content. This has created a so-called flattening of the Internet, as service providers migrate their traffic away from the public core of the Internet onto private and semiprivate overlay networks, to deliver content as directly as possible from their sites to end-users.
Does this last issue undermine the principle of the Internet? Should Google, Microsoft et al. be allowed to operate in this way? Does anyone have any authority or right to prevent then from doing so? But on the other hand, should we care? Has a truly neutral Internet ever actually existed, in fact? Hasn't it always been a "pay to play" environment? Aren't people more interested that YouTube "just works" rather than in whether the way it's delivered undermines (or is perceived to undermine) the principles of the Internet or not?

There's a very interesting parallel between the concepts of "regulatory certainty" and a "neutral Internet" here I think - have either ever truly existed? - which provides plenty of potential for ill-informed debate. Thankfully, the European Commission would appear to have its head firmly screwed on in relation to the net neutrality debate - let's hope this continues to be the case.

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