A group of tech celebs gathered on Capitol Hill this week to brief Congressional aides on how Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) can, and probably will, make a complete mess of the Internet in about a year's time.
At issue are likely revisions to the 1996 Telecommunications Act and FCC regulations, which, thus far, have managed to do scant violence to the Net. Unfortunately, changes now being contemplated, urged by telecomms and media behemoths and their lobbyists, may soon alter that happy state of affairs. Broadband users are particularly at risk, because they enjoy little of the consumer choice available to dialup users. One can connect to a phone line and reach any of hundreds of dialup ISPs. Broadband users have no such luxury.
The deregulation scam
FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who fought FCC Chairman Michael Powell's effort to ease regulations preventing the colonization of America's airwaves and print media by a handful of cartels, understands the crucial difference between deregulation and freedom.
"Entrenched interests are already jockeying to constrain the openness that has been the Internet's defining hallmark, and they are lobbying the FCC to aid and abet them," Copps declared.
"They claim all they are advocating is a deregulated environment where the market can reign supreme. But in reality, they are seeking government help to allow a few companies to turn the Internet from a place of completion and innovation, into an oligopoly. Power over the Internet would then reside with the network owners, who could use choke-point power to constrain consumer choices, limit sources of news and information and entertainment, undermine competitors, and quash disruptive new technologies."
The Internet must remain device and technology neutral, and open, Copps warned. To illustrate, he pointed out that 35 years ago the phone company restricted the devices that could be attached and confined them to its own kit, using the excuse of ensuring quality of service. And then the FCC created a right of attachment, allowing consumers to hook up any device to the network so long as it caused no harm, and spawned dramatic growth in scores of industries. A similar regulation is needed for broadband Internet access, he hinted.
Regulate the layer, not the Net
Stanford University Law Professor Larry Lessig picked up this thread by speaking about the importance of keeping the Net technology-neutral and dumb, uninterested in what it happens to transport, and letting applications and devices at the ends develop the real smarts.
Internet patriarch Vint Cerf then struggled to explain the network structure in language understandable by non-technical folks, with mixed success. He tried to show how the network is layered, and warned against regulation of the whole when a particular layer or protocol is all one needs to deal with.
"The United States divides a lot of telecommunications services into different classes depending on not only the application, but also the underlying transport medium," Cerf explained. "So, voice over wire and voice over wireless, we regulate them differently. We regulate audio and video broadcast differently than [voice], and we regulate the cable television industry differently from the broadcast industry."
The Net "destroys that whole model because it can carry anything, including voice and video, over Internet packets; and Internet packets don't care what the transmission medium is. So this [current regulatory] model is in conflict with the fundamental architecture of the Internet.
"Since policy often has a direct effect on players, we need to know which layer in the architecture we want the policy to influence," he said.
The best speech came from University of Virginia Law School Associate Professor Tim Wu, who cited actual examples of industry abuse worth regulating against. He recalled broadband providers such as AT&T, that initially banned such devices as Wi-Fi routers, the use of which it called theft of service, even threatening subscribers with jail time for using them. Others have responded by refusing to offer tech support but offering their own Wi-Fi gear at additional cost.
He mentioned as well that broadband providers, Comcast in particular, have restricted or banned the use of virtual private networks (VPNs). The idea here is to charge the customer as a business user, rather than a home user, and extort extra money. Servers and VoIP have also been banned in places, to protect other services that the provider offers. The Register