Thursday, November 20, 2014

FCC inches away from neutrality

The FCC’s latest proposal for network neutrality rules creates space for broadband carriers to offer “paid prioritization” services.[11] While the sale of such prioritization has been characterized as a stark and simple sorting into “fast” and “slow” traffic lanes,[12] the offering is somewhat more subtle: a paid prioritization service allows broadband carriers to charge content providers for priority when allocating the network’s shared resources, including the potentially scarce bandwidth over the last-mile connection between the Internet and an individual broadband subscriber. Such allocation has historically been determined by detached—or “neutral”—algorithms. The Commission’s newly proposed rules, however, would allow carriers to subject this allocation to a content provider’s ability and willingness to pay.

That's from a review on Standard Law Review a few months ago. I think this evolution in the FCC's approach will benefit the public.

It seems important to consider realistic developments of the Internet. Here's a thought experiment I've used for a long time, and that seems to be happening in practice. Try to imagine what goes wrong if a site like YouTube or Netflix pays--with its own money--to install some extra network infrastructure in your neighborhood, but only allows its own packets to go across that infrastructure. Doing so is a flagrant violation of network neutrality, because packets from one site will get to you faster than packets from another site. Yet, I can't see the harm. It seems like a helpful development, and just the sort of thing that might get squashed by an overly idealistic commitment to neutrality.

As a follow-on question, what changes if instead of Netflix building the infrastructure itself, it pays Comcast to do it? It's the same from a consumer's view as before, only now the companies in question are probably saving money. Thus, it's even better for the general public, yet it's an even more flagrant violation of network neutrality. In this scenario, Netflix is straight-up paying for better access.

It seems that the FCC now agrees with that general reasoning. They not only support content delivery networks in general, but now they are going to allow generic ISPs to provide their own prioritized access to sites that pay a higher price for it.

I believe "neutrality" is not the best precise goal to go for. Rather, it's better to think about a more general notion of anti-trust.

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