Google, Facebook lead charge against Web traffic discrimination

Major tech firms tell the FCC to keep Net neutrality strong in order to protect online businesses, particularly startups

The Internet Association, a consortium of major U.S. tech firms -- Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, Netflix, and Twitter among them -- presented its joint case in favor of Net neutrality to the Federal Communications Commission on Monday. The group's position is as straightforward as it gets: no toll lanes on the Net, wired or wireless, thank you very much.

The group's filing with the FCC is a reflection of the default stance taken by most tech companies and content providers on Net neutrality. Internet providers, mobile carriers included, should not be permitted to strike fast-lane deals, where people are surcharged for premium access to certain kinds of content. Discrimination and anticompetitive behavior are to be shunned, says the Internet Association, and all types of networks should be treated equally.

The submission comes at the tail end of a window for comments solicited by the FCC about a new Net neutrality proposal. While the FCC claims it doesn't want ISPs or service providers to divide the Net into fast and slow lanes, the new FCC rules have been roundly criticized for having enough loopholes to allow the practice.

For the most part, the association asks for "simple, enforceable rules" against blocking or traffic discrimination, applied to landline ISPs and wireless providers alike. According to the National Journal, the original FCC Net neutrality rules were intended to apply to wired network providers only, but "with so many people now accessing the Internet on their smartphones, the agency should abolish that distinction."

The FCC's been flooded with feedback on the issue: 647,000 comments so far, according to chairman Tom Wheeler.

Aside from the usual big names like Google and Amazon, tech investors are also uneasy about the FCC's newly proposed rules, believing they will price tech startups that need high-speed networking out of the running with legacy competitors.

Predictably, most of the votes against tightening Net neutrality rules come from ISPs. Reuters has noted that wireless carriers believe that "stricter rules may hurt how they manage their dynamic shared networks, leading to slower Internet speeds for everyone."

The comment offers hints of how the behind-the-scenes handling of network traffic by ISPs is complex enough that it might not be easily regulated. A recent spat between Comcast, Netflix, and Internet backbone provider Level 3 serves as another example, since it involved a complex peering arrangement between several parties. The FCC's authority might not extend into that realm, which would explain why the FCC has worded its new rules with a degree of looseness. The last thing the FCC wants is to be charged with overstepping its authority -- precisely what happened in the last go-round involving Net neutrality, when the FCC lost an appeal concerning the breadth of its authority in regulating broadband providers.

Another critic of the new rules -- and of Net neutrality by way of government regulation -- is former FCC commissioner Robert M. McDowell. In a Washington Post editorial, McDowell claims the concept of Net neutrality is a red herring, an echo of Fairness Doctrine-era rules.

"If consumers were being harmed by ISPs, ample antitrust, competition, and consumer protection laws already exist to fix the problem," he wrote. "And major broadband providers have pledged, in their terms of service, to keep the Net open and freedom-enhancing. Why? Because it is good business to do so." To him, the "growing pains" that manifest in issues like Netflix's traffic-peering disagreements are best sorted out through the market.

But the real worry is that the market may turn out to be an even more inefficient model. InfoWorld's Bill Snyder has compared ISPs like Verizon to oligopolists like the Standard Oil of old, prone to infighting that market forces do not affect (Time Warner Cable vs. CBS), and has chided the FCC for not simply reclassifying broadband outfits as common carriers.

Such a move would give the FCC more authority over ISPs, but it could come at a great political cost, generating even more anti-government backlash from ISPs. For possibly that reason, the Internet Association made no comment either way as to whether the FCC should use the common-carrier option.

Filings for the FCC on proceeding 14-28, "Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet," remain open until Tuesday, July 15.

This story, "Google, Facebook lead charge against Web traffic discrimination," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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