The FCC convened this morning and voted to move forward with formalizing net neutrality guidelines. The vote was unanimous, including Republican Commissioners Robert McDowell and Meredith Attwell Baker, and initiates the process of debating the proposed rules before any net neutrality policy is actually implemented.
The FCC has already imposed net neutrality principles in past decisions such as banning broadband Internet provider Comcast from throttling peer-to-peer networking traffic. Without a formally sanctioned set of rules though, such decisions could be seen as arbitrary or capricious.
When FCC chairman Julius Genachowski first announced his intention to pursue formalizing net neutrality, it did not take long to see that there are distinctly partisan battle lines involved. Of course, in Washington DC today there are distinctly partisan battle lines involved in where to eat lunch or what color the sky is, so I suppose that should come as no surprise. Still, it was a little shocking that within hours of Genachowski's statement regarding net neutrality GOP lawmakers had already filed an amendment (later retracted) to prohibit the FCC from pursuing it.
In the weeks between Genachowski's initial statement and today's vote the lobbying pressure and the rhetoric in the media have been relatively constant from net neutrality opponents. This week AT&T was accused of astroturfing-- creating a fake grassroots movement-- by encouraging employees to voice their concerns on the FCC web site using their own personal email addresses.
Proponents of net neutrality were not as vocal until more recently. A coalition of 30 tech-focused venture capitalists, under the banner of the Open Internet Coalition, sent an open letter to Genachowski just yesterday urging support for net neutrality rules.
Verizon didn't completely defect, but it did break ranks with other broadband and wireless providers when it issued a joint statement with Google expressing agreed upon common ground for governing net neutrality. Perhaps it's a reflection of the new partnership forged between Verizon and Google to develop Android-based mobile handsets like the upcoming Droid.
Just yesterday the Canadian government ruled on its version of net neutrality. Canada upheld the right of providers to ‘manage' the traffic on their networks, but within certain guidelines. It also stipulated that traffic throttling should be a measure of last resort.
I maintain that net neutrality rules are essential. Comcast talked about how the Internet has thrived without net neutrality, while tacitly admitting that it is only because of the threat of net neutrality that it has played by the rules. AT&T reversed its position on allowing VoIP over its wireless network and pointed to that decision as evidence that the industry can police itself, while not-so-subtly demonstrating that the new policy was a direct attempt to influence the net neutrality debate.
The bottom line is that the providers only treat consumers right and do the right thing because of government oversight or the threat of it. If they thought they could act with impunity, they would. Comcast is rumored to be pursuing a stake in NBC-- would that give them the right to provide preferential bandwidth to NBC web content and throttle the other networks? There is simply too much convergence and overlap creating conflicts of interest to allow the industry to police itself.
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.