Cybereye | Striking the public-private balance

For providers of essential public services, private profit must sometimes take a back seat to public policy.

The Federal Communications Commission has ruled that network operators cannot limit customer access to Internet resources in the name of network management.

The ruling takes to task one of the nation's largest broadband service providers for blocking some peer-to-peer traffic on its networks. It affirms that the government's responsibility for defending this critical infrastructure includes protecting users from business practices intended to maximize corporate profit at the expense of the public good.

There isn't anything wrong with profits. But for providers of essential public services, private profit must sometimes take a back seat to public policy.

In this case, FCC is defending a customer's right to access the Internet after paying for Internet access. If network service providers that have financial interests in Internet content can protect those interests by restricting customer access, the Internet is crippled.

In this case, Comcast is interfering with peer-to-peer uploads, which in some cases could be seen as competition to content that the company delivers. Comcast described the practice as 'very limited management of P2P protocols in the upstream direction' and said that 'downloads are not subject' to this management. How that works is not clear, because in a peer-to-peer environment, every download is someone else's upload. The purpose of this management was to 'ensure a high-quality Internet experience' for the company's customers.

But not all of those customers whose P2P traffic was diminished considered it a high-quality experience. Free Press, a media reform and public advocacy group, filed a complaint with FCC asking for a ruling that 'the practice by broadband service providers of degrading peer-to-peer traffic violates the FCC's Internet Policy Statement.'

The FCC order will have little practical effect in the immediate case. In March, Comcast said it would begin using protocol- independent network management tools by the end of the year, and the order gives the company time to do this. However, it does send a clear message that network providers will not be allowed to discriminate in the traffic they allow their customers to use.

Critics of the decision cite regulation of the Internet. However, the question is not whether the Internet will be regulated but who will do it. Government has the advantage of working in the public interest, while companies work for their interests. In the future, when we have more networking choices available to us, this kind of protection might become unnecessary. But for the present, we have only one Internet and few choices of how we access it. Protection of those resources through regulation is needed.

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

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