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Net Neutrality: Carrier Controls Could Limit Remote Work and Cloud Computing

The topic of Net neutrality also has unintended consequence for IT managers. The concept of Net neutrality is that all Internet traffic should be treated the same and not prioritized (in terms of service or price) by the carriers. The carriers have justified non-neutral traffic management, such as metering and blocking, as necessary because of a few people who continually access large video files or play bandwidth-intensive games. The carriers argue this traffic fills their networks and gets in the way of everyone else's access to the Internet. They also cite the rise of peer-to-peer sharing of music and video files, which the entertainment industry says is a form of theft.

But in a Net neutrality case involving Comcast, the Federal Trade Commission recently ruled that Comcast can't entirely block peer-to-per file sharing traffic, at least not without prior notification to its customers. The FTC's concerns were based on how such controls might limit the overall Internet access marketplace and lead to possibly monopolist practices by carriers as their policies favored certain types of usage or providers.

Businesses had more immediate concerns about Comcast's actions since it affected their home-based workers. "Comcast, in trying to block BitTorrent, inadvertently was also blocking some Lotus Notes traffic," says the EFF's O'Brien. And at least one Canadian ISP has had a peer traffic block that also affected business-related traffic.

The ruling has major implications for distributed corporate workforces and on the projected greater reliance on cloud computing and Web-based services and applications in the coming years. As more businesses make use of Internet-based services and store more of their data in the cloud, the assumption is that this data is universally accessible no matter where a user is located and no matter what provider is used to get online. That may not be an assumption businesses can count on.

The FTC ruling was not conclusive, and Comcast has appealed, so the door is still open to carriers controlling traffic that passes through them to the Internet. And other countries -- such as China and Saudi Arabia -- already block and regulate Internet traffic, so global companies may face this issue even if the United States ends up supporting Net neutrality.

And Comcast continues to find ways to regulate Internet access. After the FTC ruled against controlling peer-to-peer traffic specifically, Comcast decided to place a blanket cap of 250GB of data usage per month per residential account.

The FTC action was not the only place where federal policymakers have shown concern over carriers' actions or possible actions to regulate Internet traffic. Last month, FCC commissioner Robert McDowell asked AT&T Wireless to provide the information on its peer-to-peer policy during a recent hearing tied to broadband issues. Although AT&T doesn't block peer-to-peer traffic today across its wireless network, there is concern that it and other major carriers may do so in the future.

In the meantime, businesses can see what their carriers are doing to Internet traffic to find out if it hinders business and employee access to the Internet. The EFF has developed a test tool called Switzerland that shows what ports a provider is blocking. And it recommends that IT use its purchasing power to make the carriers come clean on what they are controlling, O'Brien recommends: "Anyone who signs up a new provider should consider adding a clause to their contracts about service level agreements that should hold the provider to any transparency about what network management and blocks that they are doing."

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