When FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced the commission’s intention to use Title II authority to promote an open Internet, it was a triumph for advocates of broad-based oversight. The FCC’s Fact Sheet details the upcoming ruling, showing strong support for net neutrality rules, plus attention to other current Internet problem spots.
Do we really need this level of regulation? As consumers, it’s worth remembering that the Internet is a highly engineered, intelligent system and it’s to our benefit to establish equally intelligent oversight. Below is a particular, every-day Internet practice that demonstrates the need for well-informed oversight.
Wireless network congestion as a jumping-off point
Internet service providers (ISPs) — companies such as AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, etc. — handle heavy traffic by “aggressively managing” wireless networks during peak times. Network devices (called routers) manage traffic using specialized software algorithms. This means certain traffic is prioritized while other traffic is stalled or dropped. The software is designed to drop “intelligently” rather than “randomly.” For example, systems commonly prioritize voice-related traffic such as Skype while dropping video feed to a lesser quality.
Sounds like an OK way to get the job done, but it is also a perfect example of non-neutrality. The latest FCC guidelines note the need for wireless networks to manage congestion using these sophisticated algorithms even though they are, technically speaking, non-neutral.
But what’s to stop ISPs from using intelligent algorithms to maximize their own profit? Routers might prioritize traffic from affiliate networks or privilege traffic from businesses that pay a premium fee. This practice is called paid prioritization.
Intelligent algorithms also have the capacity to block or throttle targeted types of traffic. Like paid prioritization, blocking and throttling are mechanisms that could give ISPs commercial advantages. In fact, ISPs have stated emphatically in public forums that they will go to court to establish their legal right to use intelligent traffic management algorithms for commercial gain.
However, the FCC has proposed to ban paid prioritization, blocking, and throttling because they are harmful to the Internet economy as a whole. The handful of network owners should not have undue control over the multitude of companies using the Internet to conduct business. In the coming months the FCC will establish ways to ensure the ISPs use their intelligent software for managing traffic flow, but not for commercial gain.
Router image courtesy of freeimageslive.com.