The FCC recently lost an important ruling on net neutrality. The case concerned Comcast’s throttling of high-traffic users, primarily those using the BitTorrent service to transfer large files. The ruling is a setback for the FCC’s goal of preventing Internet service providers from filtering or blocking Internet traffic or prioritizing some kinds of data over others.
On the surface the case seems relatively benign. After all, why shouldn’t an Internet provider like Comcast be able to prevent users from taking up the bulk of its bandwidth, or offer some premium services at faster rates than others? But net neutrality is important for anyone who runs a small business or uses a home computer.
Imagine you run Mom-N-Pop Widgets, and your biggest competitor is Real Big Widget Company. Without net neutrality, Real Big could use its real big budget and influence to prioritize its data traffic over yours. Your web site might load more slowly than Real Big’s, or might not be available at all to some visitors.
Or, imagine you are a home user trying to get information about a cause that interests you — let’s say breast cancer. But what if drug manufacturers pay your Internet provider so their content is prioritized? You would receive skewed results favoring the drug manufacturers’ solutions over other, perhaps lesser known but valuable options. In other words, whoever has the money will be able to pay to be seen, while smaller entities may be unable to compete.
How about censorship? The incident with Google in China shows how governments or other entities may try to assert control over the Internet. Net neutrality is about freedom of speech as well as fairness in business practices.
Previously, the FCC described the “Four Freedoms” upon which Internet communications law should be based. These were described by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in a speech last year:
Network operators cannot prevent users from accessing the lawful Internet content, applications, and services of their choice, nor can they prohibit users from attaching non-harmful devices to the network.
Genachowski added two more principles:
The fifth principle is one of non-discrimination — stating that broadband providers cannot discriminate against particular Internet content or applications.
The sixth principle is a transparency principle — stating that providers of broadband Internet access must be transparent about their network management practices.
If you read the speech you’ll find examples of how these principles have been violated in the past. Without codified rules preventing such abuse, the Internet would quickly devolve into a world of haves and have-nots, and the kind of innovation that resulted in eBay, FaceBook and Netscape could be curtailed.
Naturally, some Internet providers have criticized the FCC’s proposal, claiming such rules are not needed. But, as Genachowski states:
This is not about government regulation of the Internet. It’s about fair rules of the road for companies that control access to the Internet. We will do as much as we need to do, and no more, to ensure that the Internet remains an unfettered platform for competition, creativity, and entrepreneurial activity.
As a small business owner and a consumer, I want the Internet open and available to anyone regardless of how much clout or money they might have. The Internet is vital to global communications and the future of humanity. Let’s not see it reduced to a fraction of its potential.