Net neutrality – keeping the internet free and open

Last week the USA’s communications control body, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), took a significant step towards promoting net neutrality in that country. Julius Genachowski, FCC boss, said:

I believe we must choose to safeguard the openness that has made the Internet a stunning success. That is why today, I delivered a speech announcing that the FCC will be the smart cop on the beat when it comes to preserving a free and open Internet.

The crux of his speech was in the following points:

In particular, I proposed that the FCC adopt two new rules to help achieve this.

The first says broadband providers cannot discriminate against particular Internet content or applications. The second says broadband providers must be transparent about their network management practices. These principles would apply to the Internet however it is accessed, though how they apply may differ depending on the access platform or technology used…

I also proposed that the FCC formally enshrine the four pre-existing agency policies that say network operators cannot prevent users from accessing the lawful Internet content, applications, and services of their choice, nor can they prohibit users from attaching non-harmful devices to the network.

Wired explains that the first proposed regulation is necessary to “to prevent cable ISPs from slowing down online video services and 3G providers from messing with internet calling services like Skype.” (See the Skype blog for more on this.) The second proposed regulation will require transparency of network management policies by carriers.

Up until now the “four pre-existing agency policies” referred to by Genachowski have not been enforced, and have only been seen to be relevant to ISPs offering wired broadband services: now their application to wireless and mobile devices is also under consideration. These regulations, plus the two proposed new ones, are to be discussed by the FCC as part of an official rule-making process in November. The large American carriers (AOL, Comcast, AT&T) are protesting, as are the Republicans, arguing that such government “interference” will “stifle innovation”.

Meanwhile in Europe, a number of organisations are campaigning for recognition of the principles of net neutrality and a petition is up for signature, campaigning for net neutrality to be enshrined in European law.

For those of us involved in online education, especially in the provision of open educational resources, net neutrality is a cornerstone of the openness that allows for the free flow of knowledge, regardless of platform, application or device used to access the knowledge.

Gabi Witthaus

28 Sept 2009

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