FCC Voted on Net Neutrality; What Their Ruling May Mean to Consumers

Today the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to “preserve the Internet as an open network enabling consumer choice, freedom of expression, user control, competition and the freedom to innovate.”

This overarching goal is admirable, and fortunately it is widely shared across service providers, content providers, and other industry players. There is however more contention over where the authority to regulate the internet lies, what level of management the internet needs, the impact to existing healthy and competitive business models and the US’s ability to remain a leader in internet innovation, how meeting the stated goals are defined, and so on.

The Safe Internet Alliance does not take a position on Net Neutrality per se; our concerns are with how Net Neutrality may impact the safety, security, and privacy of consumers. Thoroughly analyzing the FCC’s rules will take some time, but here is an overview of the key points of concern:

Transparency requirement:A person engaged in the provision of broadband Internet access service shall publicly disclose accurate information regarding the network management practices, performance, and commercial terms of its broadband Internet access services sufficient for consumers to make informed choices regarding use of such services and for content, application, service, and device providers to develop, market, and maintain Internet offerings.”

Concern: While transparency and informed choice are absolutely important for consumers, we should also expect, if not demand, that internet access providers also undertake several network management practices to protect our safety, privacy and security that they do not make public.

For example, ISP’s today have several mechanisms in place to identify images of child sexual exploitation, and it would seriously undermine this vital work to make public the ways in which they manage this on their networks. Additionally, there are many aspects of network management, performance that would be a boon to those interested in hacking, infecting or harming the networks to advance their financial or political goals.

The transparency rule therefore hinges on the concept of ‘sufficient’ information for consumers to make informed choices which is left undefined, while the overall directive makes a demand for transparency that may not serve individuals, companies, or the national security well. How this clause is further defined will be crucial to our safety.

No Blocking requirement: A person engaged in the provision of fixed broadband Internet access service … shall not block lawful content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices..[or], consumers from accessing lawful websites, subject to reasonable network management; nor shall such person block applications that compete with the provider’s voice or video telephony services, subject to reasonable network management.” This point carries the caveat “No Unreasonable Discrimination,” defined as follows: … [Access providers] shall not unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful network traffic over a consumer’s broadband Internet access service.  Reasonable network management shall not constitute unreasonable discrimination.

Concern: How the word “block” or the phrase “reasonable network management’ is defined raises safety concerns. ”Block” is generally used to suggest that one content type cannot be favored over another. While blocking legal content may be undesirable, slowing some content streaming in favor of other content types will be important for consumer’s overall experience – and safety.

For example, according to Cisco’s Networking Index Forecast, Internet traffic will more than quadruple by 2014, with some form of video content accounting for more than 90% of all content transmitted through the internet. While some of that video streaming will be for critical purposes like remote medical assistance, most will be for entertainment. Should these two types of content be given equal priority?

Should video streaming be given the same priority as phone calls (VoIP)? While a 5-second delay in video download means your video isn’t ready quite as fast as it might be, the same delay in a phone call is intolerable – and if that call is to 911, it is a clear a safety concern.  Again, there is a clear need to prioritize content types from a safety perspective, particularly given the exponential growth in bandwidth use, and the faltering economic model for bandwidth development (See “Will Video Kill the Internet, Too,” from the Dec. 2 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek)

Reasonable network management: is defined by the FCC as follows: A network management practice is reasonable if it is appropriate and tailored to achieving a legitimate network management purpose, taking into account the particular network architecture and technology of the broadband Internet access service. Legitimate network management purposes include: ensuring network security and integrity, including by addressing traffic that is harmful to the network; addressing traffic that is unwanted by users (including by premise operators), such as by providing services or capabilities consistent with a user’s choices regarding parental controls or security capabilities; and by reducing or mitigating the effects of congestion on the network.

Concern: This looks at three aspects of network management in narrowly defined categories: 1) technical management of a service, including security defenses 2) providing consumers with safety tools to manage their own content access, and 3) managing network congestion. The future may show that several additional categories are needed, and that there is more overlap between categories than suspected.

At a time when new threats emerge on a daily basis, and where entirely new categories of exploits continue to emerge, this definition has the potential to hamper proactive measures of defense in new and unforeseen areas. It also risks stifling healthy competition between service providers in areas of consumer safety, and discouraging innovation of new – or hybrid – safety, security and privacy solutions that would look beyond these narrow confines.

Our personal safety as well as the safety of the internet as a whole depends on ISPs taking strong protective measures on our behalf. We need to be pushing for greater safety measures, and creating an environment that encourages and rewards service providers for doing so.

An ‘open’ internet is an illusion if we do not have a secure environment in which consumers can safely embrace the web. Otherwise it’s only open to the crooks, scammers, and cyberthugs.

We urge all parties in this debate to place the safety of consumers first.

Linda

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