The stage is set for a vote tomorrow on net neutrality and the future of the Internet. The FCC is expected to vote to approve a net neutrality framework proposed by its chairman, Julius Genachowski. However, a win for net neutrality at this point could fall well short of the original goal.
Specific details regarding the current proposal from Genachowski are scarce, but from what has been revealed it seems to be the sort of compromise that has plagued the Obama administration since it took office--the kind of "compromise" defined by unilateral concessions (commonly known as "caving") that result in gutting the original goal and delivering a pale shadow of what it should have been. The result might be passage of a net neutrality framework, enabling the FCC to claim a hollow victory while it, in effect, does little to protect the open Internet.
Frankly, though, the debate is not black or white from either side of the fence. The country needs net neutrality to prevent arbitrary discrimination, or throttling of data based on the whims of the Internet providers. We also need policies in place to protect us from the sort of self-serving extortion Comcast is currently demanding in order to allow Netflix streaming video to pass through.
However, it is not as simple as just implementing a blanket framework that bans the Internet providers from filtering any content, or managing their networks. There are some areas where it is not only acceptable, but preferable, for ISPs to take action.
Actions such as blocking traffic from botnets or other malicious servers, filtering spam, identifying and blocking malware, or restricting illegal content would all be beneficial to the general Internet public. It is also important that ISPs prioritize traffic such as 911 calls or other emergency services.
Linda Criddle, president of the Safe Internet Alliance proclaims, "We not only want ISPs to take these protective measures on our behalf, we should be pushing for greater safety measures to be taken on our behalf. As long as an 'open' Internet is synonymous with an 'unmanaged' Internet, consumers will be left in a Wild West environment where their safety is constantly in jeopardy."
The challenge--which may very well be insurmountable--is to define and implement net neutrality policies that give ISPs the latitude to filter content and prioritize traffic in ways that are beneficial to the Internet, while at the same time having a framework or rules in place that prevent the ISPs from abusing those privileges and using them for arbitrary, self-serving purposes.
The problem with drawing a line in the sand is that--once established--the line can be moved. It is a slippery slope, and a difficult task for the FCC to strike an acceptable balance. Unfortunately, the net neutrality framework on the table seems weighted in favor of the ISPs and the status quo--offering little assurance of an open Internet.