Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Network Integrity

Like so much else in Washington DC, the debate about the future regulation of consumer Internet access is being driven by extremists. It is time to stake out the middle ground.

Network integrity, the fact that any node can reach any other node, is the key Internet attribute that can and should be protected. The lack of effective competition in wireline Internet access justifies the imposition of non-blocking, transparency and inter-connection requirements on consumer Internet access providers. If providers can demonstrate that there is effective competition in a particular market, then these requirements can be waived.

Mandating pure network neutrality, that is, the prohibition of any shaping of traffic whatever by network operators is unrealistic (since it already exists) and risky (since it will slow down deployment of competitive broadband networks). The fact that some advocates for network neutrality were willing to accept the Annenberg Center Principles suggest that they’re willing to tolerate prioritized Internet traffic, as long as all sites remain available to consumers in at least some way. In other words: prioritization is acceptable, as long as there’s no blocking.

Trying to specify the parameters of the network in any detail (implicit in the Annenberg Center Principles and "basic tier" mandates) won't work. This approach presumes an efficient regulatory process which does not exist, and will lead to large amounts of regulation with uncertain and unintended consequences. There is good reason why light touch, technology neutral regulation is generally accepted as an important principle.

However, supporting light touch regulation does not mean that one should shy away from the fact that high speed consumer broadband access is today at best a duopoly, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Both cable and telco industry players have a history of using incumbency to minimize competition (as any good company should), and one can assume they will seek to do so again in this area. While large companies like Google, eBay and Amazon can fend for themselves, emerging innovations deserve some protection.

The key property of the Internet that can and should be protected is integrity, that is, the ability of all end-points to connect to each other.

The Network Integrity proposal reasons as follows:

  • Effective competition is lacking in wireline consumer broadband access.

  • The lack of effective competition justifies the imposition of non-blocking, transparency and inter-connection requirements on wireline Internet access providers (see Network Integrity Conditions below).

  • If providers can demonstrate that effective competition exists in a particular market – they bear the burden of proof – then the Network Integrity Conditions on them can be waived.

The Network Integrity Conditions:

  1. Consumers should have access to their choice of legal content, including the freedom to run applications of their choice and attach any devices they choose to the connection in their homes. Blocking of sites, applications or data types is not allowed. Such freedom may be constrained by service plan limitations, or to prevent harm the provider’s network.

  1. The service provider is free to enter into arrangements with 3rd parties to improve content delivery, but may not degrade the service of specific 3rd parties.

  1. Service providers shall interconnect directly or indirectly with the facilities and equipment of other broadband networks

  1. Consumers should receive meaningful and understandable information regarding their service plans, including limits placed on usage, how the internet service provider prioritizes or otherwise controls content that reaches them, the disclosure of contracts with 3rd parties that affect the delivery of content, and how their personal information will be used