Monday, August 4, 2008

Week of 08/04/2008

An Uneasy Mix: The FCC and Net Neutrality
– by David Matthews 2

It was something that was not what you would consider to be in their nature.

This past week, the Federal Communications Commission, in a 3-2 vote, ruled that the cable giant Comcast was guilty of interfering with the free flow of information on the Internet when they admitted to blocking users from using file-sharing programs such as BitTorrent. This, according to FCC officials, violated the concept of “Net Neutrality”; the belief that treats all electronic information equally and says that users should be free to access all information provided on the Internet no matter the size.

Comcast officials freely admitted manipulating specific port information so that Internet users using BitTorrent would not be able to communicate with the website’s file-sharing servers until it was after the set timeout period. The end result would be an endless string of disconnections. They claimed that they had every right to restrict information to file-sharing programs because available bandwidth for cable providers is limited and that heavy users, such as those who use file-sharing programs, hog that bandwidth for themselves.

The majority of FCC Commissioners said that this violated a 2005 FCC policy that requires that requires that broadband Internet providers provide access that is widely deployed, open, affordable and accessible to all consumers.”

Imagine that… an agency of the federal government actually ADVOCATING for the free-flowing exchange of information!

And not only ANY agency… but one with a long history of CENSORSHIP!

Indeed, when anyone thinks of the FCC, they see nothing but a bunch of blue-penciled blueballed moralist prudes running around fining radio and television broadcasters for naughty words spoken or naughty images seen. These are the people who force broadcasters to bleep out naughty words, and then fine the broadcasters when the words are bleeped because people can still read lips, and then fine the broadcaster again even with the words bleeped and the mouths blurred because people still “could figure out” what was being censored.

But the FCC is more than just in charge of what is being said or seen on radio and TV. They are also in charge of phone and cable lines, the very means to connect to the Internet. This is the original justification that Congress gave in creating the FCC back in the 1930’s… even though their true purpose was to control information. It was created to oversee the framework of communication.

That brings us back to Comcast. Although the decision caries no financial penalty, the FCC ordered Comcast to stop the practice of delaying connections, submit a compliance plan to the FCC to show how they plan on stopping the practice, and to disclose the plan to the FCC and to the public.

Comcast officials claim that BitTorrent and other file-sharing services are an undue burden on available resources. But according to the FCC’s decision, Comcast’s true motive for blocking these services was a little more self-centered. Since file-sharing services like BitTorrent were used to transfer large files like movies, this posed a threat to Comcast’s Video-On-Demand service. After all, why PAY for movies when you can download them off the Internet? That’s the justification the FCC gave to step in.

Although, as a Comcast user myself (for TV only), I have to say that it is a very weak justification. Yes I can download videos and put them to DVD and watch them on TV if I choose, but that takes a lot of work. And the quality isn’t that great to begin with. Why would I want to do that when I can order them off my cable box, record them to my DVR, and watch them at my leisure? Or better yet, why not just buy the DVD itself and then I can watch them over and over again? It simply does not make sense.

Still, the decision stands, and netizens are jubilant about the FCC voting in their favor. “Net Neutrality LIVES!” Or so they proclaim.

But does it really?

I have my doubts. I believe there is something a little more ominous behind this decision.

Let’s not forget that we are still dealing with a federal agency whose true purpose of existence was to control and limit the free exchange of information. That is what censorship is in its purest form. It is the control and limitation of the free exchange of information. That simple fact contradicts what is at the very core of Net Neutrality, which is to consider ALL information equal.

Let’s get brutally honest here… to trust the free exchange of information to the FCC is like entrusting your daughter’s virginity to a serial rapist. They may sound nice and charming, but you know what will happen at the end of the day.

There is an ulterior motive behind this uncharacteristic decision, and it is one that should give all supporters of Net Neutrality pause.

As the FCC commissioners were debating this very issue, Congress is being pushed to enact Net Neutrality legislation. Legislation that would actually FORCE a policy of Net Neutrality for all Internet providers. Not just the cable providers or the DSL providers or even the dial-up providers, but for ALL providers, no matter the method of access. A policy that says that it doesn’t matter WHAT the website is or WHAT the content is or WHAT the method is, providers cannot limit or prevent access to it if it is accessible by the public.

This flies in the face of the plans and schemes being hashed out by providers like Comcast, AT&T, Virgin Media, and longtime online provider America Online. They have long since been planning on setting up a series of boutique “access plans” whereby CERTAIN features or CERTAIN access is available for some, and others can only be available after paying a much HIGHER fee. They can also pimp their access plans to the webmasters themselves, demanding that they pay the providers a fee so that their users can freely access the information.

Oh, you like watching videos through YouTube? Well XYZ provider thinks that you should be watching them through Metacafe instead, so they’re going to hinder or block your access of YouTube and a few other online video sites so that you have no choice but to watch them on Metacafe… because they paid XYZ to do so. And if you really want to watch videos on YouTube, then you’ll just have to upgrade your access to XYZ’s more expensive “premium business” service.

That’s the plan, and the big corporate providers have been working nonstop to put that plan into place. The only thing that can stop that is Net Neutrality.

So what the providers have to do is stop the legislation, and the best way to do that is to say that it’s really not needed, because there supposedly is a policy in place already to enforce it. That’s the 2005 broadband policy.

Now follow closely, because it gets funky from here.

Imbedded in that broadband policy is a little codicil that says that the policy of Net Neutrality is “subject to reasonable network management”. In other words, you can’t have a policy of Net Neutrality if it means killing your network.

So… how do you define “reasonable”? You don’t! Just like you can’t define “indecent”! It’s a subjective term being used in an objective policy. The FCC gets to determine what “reasonable” is, just like they have been allowed to define what “indecent” is. That’s not exactly good for the people who support Net Neutrality, because the FCC has shown bias towards corporations in the past.

So in order to get the people pushing for that legislation to back down, the FCC had to demonstrate that the system currently in place works. They need a fall guy. They need someone or some corporation that would pose as a convincing villain that would be willing to be “slapped down” by the FCC.

Comcast certainly fits the bill. Their customer service reputation has been pretty low for a while now, and in recent hearings hosted by the FCC, Comcast actually PAID people to fill all the available chairs so the people in favor of Net Neutrality wouldn’t be allowed in to provide testimony. Villainy most foul indeed!

Now if the FCC had sided with Comcast, saying that their reasons for blocking peer-to-peer file sharing were in fact “reasonable”, what would have happened? All of those netizens that have been watching this case intensely, waiting for the commissioners to do “the right thing”, would have been outraged by the decision. They would have gone to their legislators and said “SEE? The FCC can’t fix squat! They can’t be trusted! We need Net Neutrality legislation in place NOW!”

But because the 3-2 margin was in favor of the netizens instead of for Comcast, the netizens are rejoicing! They’re celebrating because they believe that the system WORKS now. They don’t have to call their legislators. They don’t have to have legislation in place, because the FCC has their backs!

Or… so the netizens believe.

Now I realize that this is all just speculation on my part… but this sounds too much like a scam! And the only things that I have to back it up are some observations.

For instance, they say that politics make for strange bedfellows… so where were the strange bedfellows for Comcast? Why were they leaving Comcast out to seemingly twist in the wind?

Where were the groups that would normally be out there to demonize peer-to-peer file sharing programs like BitTorrent? Where were the representatives from the RIAA and MPAA? Why weren’t they educating the public on how peer-to-peer programs are used to violate federal copyright laws and how Comcast was doing them a favor? Where was Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, a vocal opponent of file-sharing programs? Where were the religious groups and the anti-porn groups to castigate peer-to-peer users because those programs could also be used to pass around porn?

For that matter, where were their fellow providers? Why weren’t they putting on a full-court media press to back up Comcast executives? Wouldn’t they be in the same proverbial hot water under any other circumstance? This should have been an all-out political war, both in the media and behind-the-scenes. And it wasn’t. Doesn’t that sound just a little bit suspicious?

Plus… no fine? From the FCC? The same government agency that was willing to fine Howard Stern just for saying “good morning” on the air? The FCC not issuing a fine is like asking their baby-faced Chairman Kevin Martin to become a Wiccan! It just doesn’t make sense if it’s all on the up-and-up.

In short, this is just too damn suspicious!

Of course now everything is in the hands of the FCC. THEY get to determine what is “reasonable”, just like they get to determine what is “indecent” for radio and TV. And maybe the next time Comcast or some other provider pulls the same trick, the vote won’t be 3-2 in favor of the netizens. After all, what was their sin? Not telling the public they were doing it. That can be easily remedied, providing their fellow providers do the same thing.

All in all, the Internet community should not be praising or rejoicing over this decision by the FCC. They should not treat this as a vindication, but rather for what it really is… a short-term measure at best until we can put real Net Neutrality legislation on the books. Because it doesn’t matter if it is done by a handful of rich and powerful corporations or by one all-powerful institution called government, the regulation of online information is in contradiction to the very nature of the Internet. The less such regulation there is, the better.

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