FCC Brings a Bit of Sense to the Network Neutrality Debate

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US regulator the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has decided to mandate ‘network neutrality’.

While it has no power here in the UK, its approach will probably influence decision-makers here.

Defining Net Neutrality

There are many different definitions of Network Neutrality. A simple definition would be that ‘a network must be a passive conduit of traffic.’

In other words:

  • A network should not block any traffic, or types of traffic.
  • It should not block any sites.
  • It should not prioritise Internet traffic.
  • It should have no restrictions on the end-user equipment that can be connected to the network.
  • It should not prioritise traffic generated by its owners’ own services in preference to general Internet traffic which it carries.

On the face of it, this sounds great, but when you consider some of the implications it quickly turns sour.

Why Simple Network Neutrality is Nuts

This simple approach to Network Neutrality would be crazy:

  • ISPs would not be allowed to block denial-of-service attacks (that’s blocking traffic,  which is verboten)
  • ISPs would not be allowed to block access to illegal web sites full of child porn (that’s blocking sites)
  • ISPs would not be allowed to offer web-filtering to Primary Schools (that’s blocking sites, which is not allowed, even if that’s what the customer wants)
  • ISPs would not be allowed to give phone calls priority over P2P internet traffic (your call has been dropped, because someone needed the backhaul bandwidth to download this week’s episode of Glee)
  • ISPs would not be allowed to stop customers from attaching untested, unreliable equipment that would interfere with the network and harm other customers internet experience (network neutrality calls for a free-for-all in connected devices)

The FCC Hasn’t Gone Down That Path

The FCC has been talking to interested parties and has inserted several sensible caveats to the network 'neutrality requirement'.

  • “Reasonable network management” will be allowed e.g. to ensure network security and to block harmful traffic
  • It only applies to legal content. There’s no protection for illegal traffic.
  • Traffic prioritisation is allowed, in many cases, if it’s aimed at “reducing or mitigating the effects of congestion on the network’
  • Customer-initiated content filtering will be allowed.

Update: This article was originally published in 2011. Since then the European Commission mandated Network Neutrality within the EU, from late 2016. The EC, like the US Federal Communications Commission five years before it, opted against mandating simple network neutrality.

Tech activists are up in arms - they don't think the regulations go far enough. Internet Service Providers are also up in arms - they think the regulations are too prescriptive and impractical. So, neutrality of a sort has been achieved.

A cynic might ask how many senior network engineers working at european Internet service providers are ever likely to read Regulation (EU) 2015/2120 and the 'BEREC Guidelines on the Implementation by National Regulators of European Net Neutrality Rules.' No doubt all of them.

In 2015, towards the end of President Obama's final term, the FCC changed it's view on network neutrality. In 2017, under President Trump, the FCC changed its position.

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