The Chair of the Federal Communications Commission has taken a stand for network neutrality – the founding principle of openness of the Internet. In short, network neutrality means the entity providing you access to the Internet cannot interfere with the sites you choose to visit – it cannot speed them up or slow them down in order to increase their profits.
FCC Chair Julius Genachowski recently spoke at the Brookings Institution [pdf] on the importance of an open Internet. He started by noting many of the ways we depend on services delivered over the Internet:
Even now, the Internet is beginning to transform health care, education, and energy usage for the better. Health-related applications, distributed over a widely connected Internet, can help bring down health care costs and improve medical service. Four out of five Americans who are online have accessed medical information over the Internet, and most say this information affected their decision-making. Nearly four million college students took at least one online course in 2007, and the Internet can potentially connect kids anywhere to the best information and teachers everywhere. And the Internet is helping enable smart grid technologies, which promise to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by hundreds of millions of metric tons.
However, because most Americans get access to the Internet from large, absentee-owned profit-maximizing companies who are often de facto monopolies, we have to beware the gulf between community interests and the narrow interests of these companies.
A second reason [for network neutrality rules] involves the economic incentives of broadband providers. The great majority of companies that operate our nation’s broadband pipes rely upon revenue from selling phone service, cable TV subscriptions, or both. These services increasingly compete with voice and video products provided over the Internet. The net result is that broadband providers’ rational bottom-line interests may diverge from the broad interests of consumers in competition and choice.
For this reason and others, the Chair suggested adding two new "freedoms" to the four Internet freedoms [pdf] already recognized by the FCC (freedom to access content, use applications, attach personal devices to the network, and obtain service plan information).
The fifth freedom expands on the first two – to access content and applications. Now providers may be explicitly prohibited from interfering with legal content – something that was previously less clear (which is why Comcast is suing the FCC over its power to enforce this rule).
And the sixth freedom expands on our previous freedom to obtain service plan information – it expands the required transparency of Internet Service Providers.
Network Neutrality is a necessary but insufficient rule to protect subscribers. Service providers must not be allowed to interfere with user freedom to boost corporate profits but this is just a small part of the problem outlined by Genachowski above: the divergent interests of profit-maximizing companies and the communities that depend on broadband infrastructure. Community networks are far less likely to interfere with subscriber freedoms, something that will not change even as corporate lobbyists chip away at regulations protecting subscribers from companies like AT&T and Comcast.
For more information, including a longer discussion with more resources, see the original post on MuniNetworks.org.
Photo used under Creative Commons license from AdamWillis.