Julius Genachowski, the recently-appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has moved to ensure that all legal content has equal access to the internet, a decision that has angered some major technology companies while at the same time being hailed by consumer advocates. As The Wall Street Journal reports, the Chairman’s proposal, which is making its way through the agency in draft form, would shift the focus of so-called “net-neutrality” rules from protecting consumer rights to limiting what actions internet service providers can take with regard to content carried on their networks. Presently, the FCC has only policies to guide internet providers regarding net neutrality, but no formal rules have been established. The Chairman’s move to formalize net-neutrality rules comes after Congress repeatedly failed to address the issue and just as AT&T alleges that Google Voice violates the current guidelines.
In proposing a formalization of net neutrality guidelines, Chairman Genachowski enters a very tense debate over what controls, if any, the government should have over private companies operating very expensive computer networks. The FCC argues that net neutrality ensures equality on the internet by preventing an internet provider from discriminating against particular content. Often sighted as examples would be one provider blocking access to a site or service offered by a competitor, or a provider blocking access to a service it feels places to great a strain on its network demands. Internet carriers contest that they should be able to treat more “important” traffic, such as financial transactions or subscription television services, differently from other network traffic. Internet providers argue that in order to provide quality service to the majority of their customers, and to accommodate advanced service offerings (such as Verizon’s FiOS TV or AT&T’s U-Verse), the network operators must be able to regulate what content their networks carry. Much like a busy intersection without a traffic signal, network operators argue that by allowing any legitimate service to utilize their resources without constraint, the overall internet experience will be detrimentally impacted, including that of customers paying for premium services. Current FCC guidelines focus entirely on maintaining an open internet (protecting the consumer) while failing to address carriers’ legitimate concerns regarding the management of their infrastructure. To resolve many of the internet providers’ concerns, the FCC’s draft language includes provisions allowing the agency to grant exceptions to the rules, thereby allowing certain traffic to take priority over other content.
By granting itself the authority to exempt certain network traffic from its proposed net-neutrality rules, the FCC hopes to protect consumers while simultaneously allowing network providers to manage the traffic on their systems in limited instances. By requiring that internet providers first seek FCC approval to restrict content, which most certainly would require justification of the disparate treatment of the traffic in question, the agency prevents carriers from capriciously blocking content while simultaneously protecting the providers’ ability to maintain the stability of their infrastructure. Considering the important role the internet now plays in daily life, protecting access for consumers while also allowing internet carriers to manage their resources strikes precisely the balance needed to ensure the openness and availability users have come to expect from the internet.