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Net Neutrality: Fixing a Problem that Doesn’t Exist?

That was the theme of my recent Houston Business Journal editorial.  Disagree?  Know of an actual verified anecdote other than Comcast and BitTorrent?  Please share in the comments.  Here is the editorial in full.

 Guest Commentary

FCC’s net neutrality rules fix problems that don’t exist

Houston Business Journal – by Travis Crabtree

Special to Houston Business Journal

Date: Friday, January 14, 2011, 5:00am CST

                  

Last month, in a little-noticed but historic move that was no doubt timed to happen in the midst of holiday distractions, the federal government took its very first step to regulate how hundreds of millions of Americans access and use the Internet.The haphazard pretense under which the feds have waded into this issue begs the question — can needing a government permit to launch a website can be far behind?

How did we get here? For one thing, the fearmongering by “net neutrality” advocates has clearly been persuasive. They have painted a sinister picture of a world where Internet Service Providers like Comcast <http://www.bizjournals.com/profiles/us/pa/philadelphia/comcast_corp/2045520/>  <http://www.bizjournals.com/#bizWatch-popup>  could block or slow down content from competitors.

Furthermore, the fearmongers fathom a world much like our transit system, where ISPs could create a virtual HOV lane providing faster access for those willing to pay a premium. Well-financed companies like the Google <http://www.bizjournals.com/profiles/us/ca/mountain_view/google_inc/15435/>  <http://www.bizjournals.com/#bizWatch-popup> s and Facebooks of the world would benefit, while the lowly startups would struggle because of lower bandwidth that would make their sites function as if on a dial-up connection.

Clearly, the FCC found these largely hypothetical concerns compelling enough that a majority of its five members felt they had to intervene. By a vote of 3-2, along party lines, they passed net neutrality rules encompassing three main areas: disclosure, no blocking and no “unreasonable” discrimination.

Let’s start with disclosure. The FCC wants to require ISPs to disclose their “network management practices.” While the disclosure of these practices would be as well-read as the ubiquitous terms of service agreements we all agree to on every website, the social nature of the web would be quick to point out the villainous ISPs who do, in fact, employ any “black hat” tactics.

For example, there are at least four broadband land-based ISPs from which we can choose and countless more DSL providers. (If we choose to cut the cable and go wireless, our options increase substantially.) If we learn from their network-management-practices statement that Comcast, for any reason, kept us from seeing any site we wanted, we could “fire” it and switch to another provider. Likewise, if it discriminated against web-based startups we represent and support, we can switch.

This is the only one of the three provisions now enacted by the FCC that makes any sense.

The second rule, no blocking, prohibits land-based broadband providers from blocking “lawful” content and applications. The net neutrality advocates insist the FCC must define what constitutes lawful subject matter so it can be protected, but only a government bureaucrat could appreciate the confusion such an arcane regulation will invite.

Not to be undaunted, the FCC has taken the first step down this massive, slippery slope. The problem here is, before you know it, you might need a permit from the FCC or some other department certifying the content on your family website is lawful before you can launch it.

The final rule aims to prevent fixed broadband providers from “unreasonably” discriminating. This is the provision that would prohibit ISPs like Comcast from shutting out competitors. It also will prohibit the providers from charging one set of users more because they stream TV shows while others merely access the Web to check e-mail and monitor their Groupons.

This is again problematic for both the advocates and the naysayers for the simple fact that exactly what “unreasonable” means will be subject to endless question — and, yes, more regulations.

Perhaps more important than consideration of what these arcane rules mean is a keener appreciation of all that has already transpired without them. Recall that e-mail, Google, Facebook and Groupon all were created without a single government permit, license or form. The Internet was doing fine without help from Washington, thank you very much.

Congress is set to weigh in on the new rules. Let’s not stifle the next innovation being created right now in someone’s garage or dorm room.

 

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