Net neutrality becomes hard to define

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler's proposed rules on Internet neutrality are receiving considerable pushback, even as the evolving nature of the Internet muddies the picture of what net neutrality might actually look like. Wheeler's fellow Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has called for a May 15 FCC commissioner vote on the proposed rules to be pushed back at least one month, and Google, Facebook, and other Web companies have criticized the new proposed rules, according to a report in Politico.

Meanwhile, the third Democratic commissioner, Mignon Clyburn, expressed her support for an open Internet, while noting that in 2010 she had favored the prohibition of any pay-for-priority arrangements, in a blog post yesterday.

“There is no doubt that preserving and maintaining a free and open Internet is fundamental to the core values of our democratic society, and I have an unwavering commitment to its independence,” she wrote, but added, “My mind remains open as I continue to evaluate how best to promote these fundamental, core values.”

Complicating the picture is the changing nature of the Internet. Timothy B. Lee writing in Vox outlined the problem: “…Wheeler's decision to water down network neutrality regulations isn't even the biggest threat to the open internet right now. The internet itself is changing in ways that threaten to make the conventional net neutrality debate almost irrelevant. In recent weeks, Netflix has agreed to pay first Comcast and then Verizon for private connections directly to their respective networks. Netflix signed these deals under protest, charging that it had been coerced to pay 'tolls' just to deliver content to their own customers.”

Lee's well illustrated article describes the problem. Internet content has traditionally traveled from a Web company through an Internet backbone transit provider and ISP to the home. With this scheme, net neutrality is relatively easy to enforce. A special toll fast lane along what has been considered the public information highway can be prohibited. However, an ISP and Web company (Comcast and Netflix, for example) can now bypass the transit provider and establish what is essentially a private road between the two.

Lee concluded, “The bottom line is that network neutrality advocates will need to broaden their thinking to respond effectively to the Internet's changing structure. Merely banning fast lanes isn't going to accomplish much if the largest ISPs are allowed to sell new private roads.”

Mozilla is offering its own take on net neutrality. In a petition filed with the FCC this week, the company wrote, “The concept of privity in network operations has changed. No longer does a network operator interact only with those entities that directly connect to it. Now, relationships between the operator and remote hosts can play a significant role in network management….” The company added that regulations developed decades ago have hobbled the FCC's ability to oversee the net's evolution.

Mozilla recommends that the FCC recognize two service models of Internet access via ISPs: local delivery, connecting each end user to all edge providers, and remote delivery, connecting each edge provider to all end users. The latter, under Mozilla's approach, would be classified as “telecommunications services subject to Title II”—that is, what Mozilla calls remote delivery would be treated as plain-old-telephone networks are now. Chris Riley at Mozilla has a blog post that illustrates the company's recommendation.

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