Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Julius Genachowski is expected to announce a plan on Monday to formalize the idea of net neutrality. The move, which supports a campaign promise made by President Barack Obama, will prevent the information superhighway from becoming a toll road giving preferential treatment to those who pay for it.
The move would formalize rules the FCC has already been imposing on a case by case basis. Last Fall, under the previous administration and previous FCC chairman, Kevin Martin, the FCC ruled that Comcast could not throttle (or limit) bandwidth for peer-to-peer (P2P) networking traffic. Comcast is challenging that ruling, but formalizing the guidelines being imposed would help support the FCC decision.
The announcement is also predicted to expand the scope of the concept of net neutrality to include broadband wireless service. A formal net neutrality guideline preventing preferential treatment of certain content or services could be applied to situations like the Google Voice app rejection by Apple, which the FCC is already investigating.
The battle lines get a little foggy at times. The convergence of cable TV, Internet service, mobile communications, and entertainment can make it difficult sometimes to tell whether a given entity would be harmed by or benefit from the ability to accelerate bandwidth for certain applications while throttling bandwidth for others. One provider's preferential treatment is another provider's discrimination.
The complex web of incestuous relationships between the various content, device, and service providers isn't who the FCC is trying to protect though. The move to formally back net neutrality is aimed at protecting smaller businesses and average consumers.
Borrowing the ever-popular Information Superhighway analogy, allowing providers to discriminate between types of traffic and offer preferential access to their own content or traffic from customers who pay the most is the equivalent of privatizing the United States highway system.
Imagine if private companies owned the highways and had the ability to control which lanes you could drive in based on your ability to pay. Large corporate customers with enormous budgets would get to fly by in the left lane of the highway. Smaller businesses and individuals who can afford it would get to drive on the slower highway lanes-frequently slowed down by frustrating construction projects. Average consumers would not be allowed on the highway at all. They would be forced to drive on surface streets-plodding along at a snail's pace, constantly interrupted by stop signs and street lights.
The Internet, and all of the resources it has to offer, is too vital to allow access to be restricted in this way. While the battle lines are drawn along more frivolous lines like whether or not Comcast can impede traffic to BitTorrent, allowing any discrimination at all is a slippery slope that can evolve into much more negative consequences.
Tony Bradley is an information security and unified communications expert with more than a decade of enterprise IT experience. He tweets as @PCSecurityNews and provides tips, advice and reviews on information security and unified communications technologies on his site at tonybradley.com.