Apple demonstrates the need for Net neutrality -- now

Recent moves to block apps from the iPhone show why legislation to preserve equal access to the Internet is needed now more than ever

Some causes are worth fighting for and Net neutrality is one of them. Last week, a bill was introduced in Congress that would require Internet service providers to "not block, interfere with, discriminate against, impair, or degrade the ability of any person to use an Internet access service to access, use, send, post, receive, or offer any lawful content, application, or service through the Internet." Congress has shot down similar measures twice before. This time we should make it stick.

Since the early days of the Internet, we as software developers have assumed the neutrality of network access as a matter of principle. Internet service, the assumption goes, is a utility like electric power. We pay for the amount of bandwidth we use, not what we use it for. Our Internet service providers should have no more say in what applications we choose to run than the power department should have a say in what kind of devices we plug into our wall sockets.

[ InfoWorld's Paul Venezia calls for a Technology Bill of Rights. | The debate over bandwidth: Why the Internet's future may be in danger. ]

In recent years, however, major telcos have pressured lawmakers to take a different viewpoint. As the Internet has assumed an ever-greater role in business and our daily lives, ISPs claim they have the right to adopt an active role in shaping the traffic that flows over their networks. They claim such interference will benefit network security, improve customer experience, and stimulate the free market. But if we want to see what the Internet would look like if the telcos get their way, we need look no further than the current situation on mobile networks -- and it's not a pretty picture.

iPhone app bans: A vision of things to come?
Smartphones are the hottest thing in mobile devices today. The advent of 3G networks and advanced mobile operating systems has transformed simple handhelds into full-fledged, Internet-enabled computing devices. As mobile apps grow in number and sophistication, we're seeing the history of the PC industry replaying itself in the mobile market, albeit in miniature.

That means we get the bad as well as the good. The dawn of the PC era meant a computer in every home, but it also saw the rise of Microsoft as the dominant platform and application vendor for desktop PCs. In the process, Microsoft's anticompetitive practices became the familiar litany of software developers everywhere. The tables may be turned in the smartphone market -- the iPhone is the leading platform and Microsoft is an also-ran -- but if you thought Apple would be above using its dominant position to bring the hammer down on independent software developers, think again.

One example is the ongoing tête-à-tête between Apple and Palm. Palm claims its much-ballyhooed Palm Pre handset can sync music tracks with iTunes; Apple says otherwise. The official story is that "Apple does not provide support for, or test for compatibility with, non-Apple digital media players," but Apple might as well just have said it does not approve of such players. As if on cue, Apple issued a software update that killed the Palm Pre's iTunes sync functionality, barely a week after the device shipped. Palm responded with a fix, but this story surely isn't over.

Even more troubling, however, is Apple's decision to block the Google Voice mobile application from the iTunes App Store. Here is a truly useful piece of third-party mobile software -- it's already available on the BlackBerry and Android platforms, and my colleague Tom Yager says every phone needs Google Voice -- but Apple forbids its use on iPhone devices on the basis that it duplicates existing iPhone functionality.

But that may not be the whole story. Critics claim that the decision to block Google Voice wasn't entirely Apple's, and that AT&T, the exclusive mobile network provider for the iPhone, played a role. The exact reason for AT&T's objection is the subject of speculation -- theories range from lost text-messaging revenue to a blanket ban on VoIP -- but the allegations are evidently concrete enough for the FCC to take an interest.

Don't think it can't happen here
Mobile network providers have long maintained a higher level of control over their services than traditional ISPs do -- because they can. Only certain devices work on certain carriers' networks, and carriers routinely disable features on those devices if they don't like their implications. And it's all perfectly legal.

By comparison, Congress has taken an active hand in the regulation of terrestrial networks since the breakup of Ma Bell in the 1970s, when lawmakers sought to curtail monopolistic practices in the telecom sector. But existing regulations were designed mainly for voice calls. Unless Congress takes specific measures to limit the powers of ISPs soon, expect the telcos to move steadily toward a service model like the one the mobile carriers enjoy now.

ISPs have already demonstrated a willingness to limit network access for specific applications. Typically they claim they do it because the applications consume an inordinate amount of bandwidth, in violation of network usage policies. But last year, the FCC found that Comcast had engaged in widespread blocking of the BitTorrent protocol, even in cases where no network congestion was present. In the absence of specific guidance from Congress, such cases will only proliferate, and the FCC's authority to regulate them will continually be called into question.

Imagine now what would happen if Comcast had the same free hand that AT&T has over its mobile network. In addition to being an ISP, Comcast is also a major provider of cable television and recently moved into digital phone service. Why shouldn't Comcast limit network access to a specific streaming video application if it "duplicates existing functionality"? Why should it permit Google Voice on its network if AT&T doesn't have to? And where does it end? Comcast offers its customers Web-based e-mail and a portal site, as well. Why should it have to provide equal access to its network to companies like Google and Yahoo if they compete directly with its own products and services?

The answer is that ISPs should not be allowed to pick and choose which services and applications are allowed access to their networks because a free and open Internet is in the public interest. The information economy has become one of the most important sectors in American industry. By no means should the keys to this revolutionary market rest in the hands of a few self-interested private businesses. As application developers, we rely on a free Internet as the foundation of innovation and progress. Write to your Congressional representatives and encourage them to vote in favor of network neutrality by supporting H.R. 3458, the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2009.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.