Don't Think it Can't Happen Here
Mobile network providers have long maintained a higher level of control over their services than traditional ISPs do -- because they can. Only certain devices work on certain carriers' networks, and carriers routinely disable features on those devices if they don't like their implications. And it's all perfectly legal.
By comparison, Congress has taken an active hand in the regulation of terrestrial networks since the breakup of Ma Bell in the 1970s, when lawmakers sought to curtail monopolistic practices in the telecom sector. But existing regulations were designed mainly for voice calls. Unless Congress takes specific measures to limit the powers of ISPs soon, expect the telcos to move steadily toward a service model like the one the mobile carriers enjoy now.
ISPs have already demonstrated a willingness to limit network access for specific applications. Typically they claim they do it because the applications consume an inordinate amount of bandwidth, in violation of network usage policies. But last year, the FCC found that Comcast had engaged in widespread blocking of the BitTorrent protocol, even in cases where no network congestion was present. In the absence of specific guidance from Congress, such cases will only proliferate, and the FCC's authority to regulate them will continually be called into question.
Imagine now what would happen if Comcast had the same free hand that AT&T has over its mobile network. In addition to being an ISP, Comcast is also a major provider of cable television and recently moved into digital phone service. Why shouldn't Comcast limit network access to a specific streaming video application if it "duplicates existing functionality"? Why should it permit Google Voice on its network if AT&T doesn't have to? And where does it end? Comcast offers its customers Web-based e-mail and a portal site, as well. Why should it have to provide equal access to its network to companies like Google and Yahoo if they compete directly with its own products and services?
The answer is that ISPs should not be allowed to pick and choose which services and applications are allowed access to their networks because a free and open Internet is in the public interest. The information economy has become one of the most important sectors in American industry. By no means should the keys to this revolutionary market rest in the hands of a few self-interested private businesses. As application developers, we rely on a free Internet as the foundation of innovation and progress. Write to your Congressional representatives and encourage them to vote in favor of network neutrality by supporting H.R. 3458, the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2009.
This story, "Why We Need Net Neutrality — And Why We Need It Now" was originally published by InfoWorld.