Net irony

April 8th, 2010 in .Blogs .Tech
Suds McSoapdish
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 Net irony

In a case of bizarre role-swapping, The Man has recently become folk hero in the eyes of many internet freedom proponents, a veritable manifestation of online libertarianism in facing down the interests of Megacorp, inc.

To be more specific, the The Man of this scenario is the US Federal Communications Commission, which just got its intentions rebuffed by a Court of Appeals in Washington, DC. On the other side was good old Comcast, successor to a whole list of smaller cable and internet providers and the biggest purveyor of such services in the United States. As a former Comcast customer it would be inappropriate for me to comment directly on their quality of operations, but I can attest that they are not evil.

What they are, though, is curiously averse to so-called net neutrality, something the FCC has been pushing in its agenda for several years. Net neutrality means all content and usage types should be treated identically and with no prejudice by internet service providers while passing through ISP infrastructure. The principle ties in to the broader issue of internet access and restrictions on use of online capabilities, whether initiated by governments, corporations or others.

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality resembles ideas on freedom of road travel and access to other infrastructure basics such as electricity and water – the power company and water supply are not supposed to poke into how specific consumers use their resources so long as those customers pay the bill and do not outright break the law.

Ditto for net neutrality. In its bid to establish a new national broadband plan, the FCC wishes to make sure as little restriction on high speed internet access exists so that as many people can get on the fast bandwagon as soon as possible, and this latest ruling flies in the face of that, with the bottom line (for now) being that Comcast has a right to “discriminate” against specific types of usage conducted on its service.

The specifics

All this harks back to 2007, when Comcast was apparently throttling the bandwidth of paying subscribers who were heavy downloaders, specifically BitTorrent fiends. These people found their connections markedly slower whenever loading up BT, and complaints were quickly lodged with the FCC. The agency ordered Comcast to stop the intentional yet unannounced slow downs, an order which the company defied by going to court. Comcast maintained it was looking out for the interests of the majority of subscribers, since heavy downloading hogs bandwidth, reducing connection speeds across the network.

It could be argued Comcast was acting to discourage illegal downloading, or maybe it was just protecting its cable business by annoying customers bent on getting their movie kicks gratis on the internet. The FCC didn’t want to hear it – dedicated to net neutrality, the regulatory agency balked at the idea of a provider deciding connection speeds based on where customers browsed. It also later took issue with other companies, such as Skype, claiming they were likewise restricting connection and service quality to funnel users towards more premium products.

Why is this ironic?

Because it seems a bit unreal for a monolithic government powerhouse like the FCC to suddenly find itself in the Robin Hood role, fighting for the liberties of consumers it has traditionally irked with countless regulations.

300Mbps of neutrality

It’s also ironic and sad because with awesome broadband technology like the really cool ASUS RT-N13U wireless router dropping in price and becoming ever-more accessible, having an ISP, of all people, out of the blue resent its own paying customers for using the very high speed service they buy every month – well, that simply doesn’t make a lot of sense.

You could say it’s not Comcast’s place to fancy itself champion of intellectual property and limit access to downloading portals. You could claim the FCC has no business telling an ISP how to manage its product – a view evidently shared by certain courts. Or you could say this whole thing reeks of hypocrisy. If BitTorrent is so bad, how come no government’s moved to actually ban it? This is becoming the tobacco product of the internet, it’s so bad for us, only more taxation will save the day.

At any rate, net neutrality has sure taken a beating. The FCC’s authority to regulate broadband may have also come into question, leading to the possibility of its very tech-savvy chairman Julius Genachowski appealing the court ruling in the near future. But for now, Megacorps everywhere rejoice.

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