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

December 23, 2010

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.



Net Neutrality – How This Debate May Affect Your Safety

December 3, 2010

Network neutrality has once again hit the news as FCC chairman Julius Genachowski offered a sneak peek at the Commission’s draft net neutrality proposal earlier this week.  Though this debate appears to be about as boring as watching snails cross a field, the outcome will have far reaching effects on your online safety.

What is net neutrality?

In simple terms, the philosophy behind network neutrality – which is also referred to as the ‘open internet’ –  is that Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) and governments should not be able to block or restrict consumer access to content, web sites, platforms, or competitors.

There are many other aspects to the net neutrality debate – including whether the FCC even has the authority to regulate ISP’s, the economics of internet transmissions, alternative proposals in Congress, conflicting political views,  but these areas will be left for others to debate.

Why safety needs to trump other considerations

On the surface, the net neutrality/open internet proposal sounds like a great benefit to consumers, ensuring that they can access any content as they see fit.  But not if it comes at the cost of safety. Any version of an open internet must first and foremost be a safe internet or consumers, businesses, and the country will lose.

Chairman Genachowski agreed with the concept of some network management when he suggesting ISPs can do “reasonable network management” to deal with traffic that is “harmful to the network or unwanted by users,” such as viruses and or graphic sexual content or to “address the effects of congestion.”

But this fails to go far enough. ISPs’ position at the edge of the internet ecosystem means they must be the front line of our safety, security and privacy defenses against the full range of online threats. They need to be able to fully manage their own networks and respond as needed to constantly evolving threats to:

  • Block or restrict content coming from a server that has been found to be malicious
  • Filter transmissions that contain viruses
  • Block spam and scams from overwhelming consumers (up to 90% of all email is spam)
  • Provide protection against spyware, viruses, and other malware by restricting the flow of these through their networks
  • Filter and block illegal content
  • Prioritize some types of data over others (for example, you want emergency 911 calls to take precedence over movie downloads so that your call isn’t dropped or your stuck waiting until bandwidth frees up)
  • Isolate and block content sent by botnets – possibly even block botnets entirely
  • Shut down data streams attempting to overwhelm websites in denial of service attacks
  • Respond to cyber warfare attacks
  • Continue to innovate on safety for the protection of consumers and the internet ecosystem
  • And so on…

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.

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


Net Neutrality? Not In the European Union

November 19, 2010

At the ‘The Open Internet and Net Neutrality in Europe’ summit last week, Europe’s leading Internet policy maker cited healthy competition as the reason the EU will not introduce net neutrality legislation designed to prevent companies from prioritizing – or blocking – certain content as has been proposed in the U.S.

Instead, EU nations will continue to rely on established guidelines that protect consumers and prevent anticompetitive behavior by telecommunications and cable firms, said Neelie Kroes E.U. commissioner for the digital agenda. Referring to the EU’s telecom regulatory framework adopted by the European Commission in 2009, which provides clear guidelines for what is and isn’t permissible behavior, Kroes added that the national regulatory authorities overseeing the practices of their local network operators are “our best insurance policy” and “competition is the open Internet’s best friend.”

The EU’s decision appears to be another blow to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which has been unsuccessful in adopting net neutrality legislation, particularly after the recent court decision favoring Comcast cast further doubts on the FCC’s authority over any broadband regulation.

The EU’s decision could change should “significant and persistent problems” anticompetitive problems emerge in the future, said Kroes, but believes consumers will guide the industry’s behavior.

Who’s Who in Internet Politics: Understanding Information Technology Policy

October 17, 2010

There is a political tug-of-war occurring over internet technology issues, with a barrage of new proposals before congress. To help you make sense of the players in this struggle, Robert Atkinson, of The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) has created a succinct, easily understandable primer of ‘who’s who’ in internet politics, and what these groups mean to the future of the internet.

The outcome of the contended issues will effect virtually every aspect of how you use the internet and the level of privacy you have while doing so. As such, understanding the players and the issues – and weighing in with your elected officials and the companies you use – is critical as we each play a role in shaping the future. I consider this document to be a ‘must read’.

The whitepaper is broken into a few key sections (Excerpted from the white paper):

The major players in the IT policy debate that fall into eight basic groups;

  • Cyber-Libertarians – These “Netizens” believe that they launched the Internet revolution. Typified by groups such as the Free Software Foundation and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and dedicated readers of Wired magazine, they believe “information wants to be free” and that all software should be open-source.,
  • Social EngineersThese liberals believe the Internet is empowering but they worry that its growth is having unintended and sometimes dire consequences for society. They invoke the so-called “digital divide,” the purported loss of privacy, net neutrality, or voice concern that corporations are controlling the use of digital content.
  • Free MarketersThis group views the digital revolution as the great third wave of economic innovation in human history (after the agricultural and industrial revolutions). Free marketers envision a dramatically reduced role for government as the Internet empowers people, liberates entrepreneurs, and enables markets.
  • Moderates This group is staunchly and unabashedly pro-IT, seeing it as this era’s driving force for both economic growth and social progress. While they view the Internet as a unique development to which old rules and laws may not apply, they believe appropriate guidelines must be developed if it is to reach its full potential.
  • Moral ConservativesThis group sees the Internet as a dangerous place, a virtual den of iniquity, populated by pornographers, gamblers, child molesters, terrorists, and other degenerates. Unlike the free marketers, the moral conservatives have no qualms about enlisting government to regulate the Internet.
  • Old Economy RegulatorsThis group believes that there is nothing inherently unique about the Internet and that it should be regulated in the same way that government regulates everything else, including past technologies.
  • Tech Companies & Trade AssociationsThis group encompasses a range of organizations from the politically savvy hardware, software and communications giants to Internet start-ups. On the whole, tech companies tend to believe that regulation can be both advantageous and detrimental; they do not fight against all regulations and they do favor the right ones for them, (and occasionally the “wrong” ones for their competitors).
  • Bricks-and-MortarsThis group includes the companies, professional groups, and unions that gain their livelihood from old-economy, face-to-face business transactions. Many of them fear, often correctly, that the Internet is making them obsolete, while others have worked to transform their business models to take advantage of e-commerce.

The dividing lines between the groups

  • Individual Empowerment vs. Societal Benefit
    This line separates groups on the basis of beliefs about the Internet’s overriding purpose. In some ways this is a variant on the classic tension between liberty and equality. However, it goes beyond this to represent the tension between individualism and communitarianism, with the former being a focus on individual rights, and the latter invoking community benefits like economic growth, security, and improved quality of life.
  • Laissez-Faire vs. Government Regulation
    The groups divide along this line over the degree to which the government should impose formal rules on IT and the Internet.

The ongoing policy debates

  • Privacy The collection and use of personal information about Internet users by corporations and government is the source of many heated and emotional debates.
  • Internet Sales TaxesTax policy is controversial in any setting, but perhaps particularly so with regard to the Internet.
  • Copyright ProtectionAs virtually all media have become digital, protecting copyrights has become a nightmare.
  • Net Neutrality What has become a highly contentious issue, net neutrality, refers to the idea that the individual networks collectively forming the Internet be controlled by users rather than by their owners and operators.

To learn more, read Who’s Who in Internet Politics: A Taxonomy of Information Technology Policy


Net Neutrality – Freedom of Speech or Corporate Heist?

February 23, 2010

The battle lines are sharpening over the question of “Net Neutrality” as FCC hearings and decisions loom. But what is really driving this push to change the status quo, and what’s really at stake for consumers?

Shakespeare got it wrong. In today’s world, a rose by any other name does not smell as sweet.  Politicians and lobbyists alike understand that how a proposal is named makes a world of difference. Associate a rallying cry with a motherhood-and-apple-pie name and your opponents are immediately cast in a negative light. For example, to vote against the Deleting Online Predators Act implied that one was voting for online predators – no matter that the proposal was misguided. What elected official can defend against that allegation in a 10-second sound bite?

The name ‘Net neutrality’ is equally deliberate and equally loaded – who wants to stand up and say I’m for Internet discrimination? Behind the guise of neutrality and a freedom-of-speech talking point are very powerful companies pushing for regulations that benefit their companies’ financial interests to the detriment of other companies’ financial interests. And, rather than have free market forces apply as they do rather admirably today, these companies’ are lobbying heavily to get regulators to stack the deck in their favor.

Online service providers and content creators want their services to be accessible to consumers (and get all the advertising revenue associated with their services) without having to collaborate with, or having to share proportional revenue with, network operators and carriers. They want to be able to use as much bandwidth as they choose to stream content, without having to pay more to do so.

Leading the opposition to the proposed legislation, Kyle McSlarrow, CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association scoffed at allegations that ISPs are harming free speech. He summed it up by saying “Internet Service Providers do not threaten free speech; their business is to enable speech and they are part of an ecosystem that represents perhaps the greatest engine for promotion of democracy and free expression in history.”

Why you should care about this battle between industry titans

Supporters of regulation claim they are protecting your freedoms, which begs a response to a few questions. From what attacks against your freedom of speech do you need protection? And, what unintended or punitive consequences might the proposed legislation cause?

Two incidents are used as freedom-of-speech cautionary tales by Net Neutrality supporters, but the very fact that there are only two cases to cite erodes rather than supports their position.  What other industry, or set of mega-companies, can claim so few missteps?  Certainly not the companies now crying foul.

In fact, given the restrictions content and services websites impose on your freedom of speech, their choice of waving the First Amendment banner is curious. The Terms of Use of any online services or content company make it abundantly clear that they assert the right to block your access, delete your content, or take other measures at their discretion if you do not comply with their limitations on your freedom of speech.

To be clear, I think establishing Terms of Use that restrict the actions and speech allowed on a website is an entirely appropriate corporate choice. Yet for companies to have these ‘anti-freedom-of-speech’ policies in place, while complaining that the terms and conditions Internet access providers have set limit your freedom of speech is absurd.

With only a couple of incidents in years of network management, Net Neutrality opponents point out that the requested regulations will impose government control on a problem that does not exist. I will go a step further and say large portions of the proposal look like an old sleight-of-hand trick – asking consumers to look in one direction while the real action is happening behind the scenes in a classic corporate coup.

The ideological, or financially motivated, pull towards more regulation sidesteps three key points:

  1. We have experienced an unprecedented blossoming of the Internet under the FCC’s historical policy of minimal regulation.
  2. Consumers have choices. There is healthy competition between Internet providers indicating that capitalism is working well within the industry. Competing in this space are cable TV, fiber optics cable, and telephone cable operators, Wimax and similar technology providers, along with wireless cellular networks, and satellite companies. This diversity of players is our best guarantee of a continued open and innovative Internet. None has the near monopoly position that some leading Net Neutrality supporters enjoy.
  3. Government bodies move slowly and are ill prepared to manage a nimble, competitive industry that must react and innovate quickly to compete not only nationally, but internationally. That needs to be able to offer increased speed, services, and safety in a competitive manner.

It does not take a genius to understand that if we want ever-faster transmission speeds and the ability to access ever-greater volumes of rich content, someone has to pay for the infrastructure and support required to provide it.  Right now, those costs are shared by consumers and the companies who want to send high volumes of content over Internet access provider’s networks.

The Net Neutrality proposal aims to change this revenue model by prohibiting carriers from placing bandwidth limits or adding usage fees to companies that are straining their bandwidth. However, it is unreasonable for companies who are raking in ad revenues to be able to freeload off the companies that built – and continue to bear the costs of maintaining – the networks.

If Internet providers have their hands tied by Net Neutrality regulations, what happens to network innovation? If you use considerably less bandwidth as you surf online, why shouldn’t you have the choice to pay less for your service? If companies can change drive legislation absolving them from paying for their Internet access, it leaves consumers to bear these costs.

Though the name Net Neutrality was carefully crafted, I recommend a different catchphrase: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.