Defining Network Neutrality

The net neutrality fight is on, as FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s proposal for new rules moved on to a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. Now, the two sides are digging in: AT&T, telcos, and unions on one side; Google and content providers on the other.

I tend to favor protecting end-to-end in the Internet context, but I’m a bit worried about what the net neutrality rules will look like in practice. There are two ways to think of this problem. First, who is the target of regulatory action? The FCC’s rules seem to look at the CEO or CTO of an ISP or telecom company. I think the correct focus is farther down the corporate ladder: the IT folks who have to implement rules on their routers. The new rules seem fine as policy statements, but how do they translate into what you can and can’t do with bits?

Second, what existing practices are covered by the net neutrality rules? I worry there are some laudable practices that might run afoul of the rules – even if it’s unlikely the FCC would seek enforcement against them. (Safety that depends on agency discretion is not particularly comforting.) Here’s a fast list of practices that might violate net neutrality right now:

  • Port blocking – can ISPs prevent you from sending e-mail except through their servers by blocking port 25? Many, including Verizon, already do. (See Rule 2 in the Press Release.)
  • Network Address TranslationNAT rewrites IP addresses to ensure that packets reach their destination. Does altering header information violate the rules? (Rule 6 at least, maybe Rule 4.)
  • Spam filtering – ISPs routinely drop connections, or quarantine messages, from known spammers and spam-friendly destinations. (Rules 1, 4.)
  • VoIP routing – some telcos route their own VoIP traffic across their network rather than the public Internet, which is more efficient (assuming both ends of the conversation have the same provider). That’s almost certainly out. (Rule 5.)
  • Virus prevention – some educational institutions scan connecting devices for Trojans / viruses / malware, or software that protects against them, and condition network access on passing this scan. (Rule 3, though doubtless the FCC would use the “harm” criterion as a dodge.)

So, I’m worried about how the FCC’s legal rules are implemented in code. I think we need a lot more guidance from the agency, particularly since net neutrality still feels somewhat like a solution in search of a problem…

One Response to “Defining Network Neutrality”

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