Net Neutrality and the Future of the Internet

5 questions for Joe Touch, director of the Postel Center at the USC Viterbi Information Sciences Institute (ISI).

updated-LYT-GUEST-EDIT-Touch-1-2Outlets like WIRED are calling the Feb. 26 FCC ruling “a historic win for the Internet.” What happened here?

The FCC re-classified the Internet as a “common carrier” – a regulated service like telephone services. The FCC had previously classified the Internet as an unregulated “information service” – i.e., more like Google or Wikipedia. The change will ensure that Internet service will be protected as a consumer right, with no discrimination based on content or customer. Some worry that this new classification will bring heavy governance and the opportunity to tax, e.g., as is done with phones for Universal Access. I had some similar concerns, but now believe that this is the best way to protect the consumer from the natural monopolies of ISPs.

It might be valuable to take a trip down memory lane. What are some of the key events in the history of the Internet that brought us to this point?

The Internet began in 1969 as a distributed experiment, which, by its very nature, requires coordination. That includes a common set of protocols and a set of assigned values. The assigned values were coordinated by USC ISI’s Jon Postel until the Internet outgrew its experimental roots and became a commercial and international interest in the mid-1990s. From that time until 2003, Internet traffic consisted largely of web surfing and email, generating sporadic traffic that could often tolerate large delays.

Around 2003, the advent of file sharing and streaming video significantly increased traffic and created a desire for predictable capacity, which quickly led to ISPs [Internet service providers] differentiating traffic based on type, and that’s when the issue of network fairness came to the forefront. Since that time, ISPs have argued for the right to charge these heavy traffic sources and customers have argued for the right to use the Internet without bias.

In 2005, the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] jumped in with its Open Internet order, which was implemented in 2009, that tried to establish that one, ISPs must transparently disclose terms of service and network performance provided; two, ISPs must not block lawful content, applications or devices that don’t harm the Internet; and three, lawful traffic should not be “unreasonably discriminated.” On Jan. 14, 2014, Verizon won a case against the FCC in the Supreme Court that the FCC had no established right to regulate broadband; [the Court] struck down the last two Open Internet principles, retaining only “transparency.” Since then, the FCC has been exploring ways to address the Court’s concerns, to assert its right to regulate the Internet as a communications service and to re-establish the latter two rights of the original Open Internet order.

Let’s say an average American sees a headline about net neutrality in the news. Can you make the case about why they should care? 

Consumers should be concerned when there are monopolies or potential biases that aren’t in their interest. Imagine your hometown roads: You pay for them and you use them to get to other places and to let others come to you. Imagine now that your city sells most of those roads for UPS trucks. That’s great when you have a UPS delivery, but what if you choose FedEx? The issue isn’t whether UPS can build bigger roads to the Interstate highways, it’s whether roads everywhere can be bought out by UPS and what that does to its competitors. Do we end up with only one delivery company? Who chooses? UPS? The government? Do we all start painting every truck brown?

The stakes are many: consumer choice, market diversity, government control, freedom of speech, application innovation and technology stability. It’s a distributed system that took 30 years to build, and we’re all riding on it. It’s useful to note that 30 percent of U.S. consumers have no choice of ISP—they can’t switch to another provider if they don’t like their ISP’s priorities. We see what happens without neutrality repeatedly—battles between cable providers and TV networks repeatedly lead to blackouts, such as CBS vs. Time Warner in August 2013.

What are three misconceptions that most people have about net neutrality?

Network neutrality doesn’t mean all traffic is always equal, that ISPs can’t charge for increased bandwidth or that the Internet is a commune. Control traffic needs to be treated with priority, and it might even be possible to treat some traffic with a higher priority if that’s what the user wants. ISPs can charge for more lanes and can even let users decide what’s more important, but they shouldn’t be selling privileged access to lanes on the customer side—the customer pays for that side of the network, and only they should decide what’s important by what they consume. Network neutrality isn’t based on an abstract philosophy of anti-discrimination. It’s based on the reality that there is a commons and it needs regulation to be protected.

I want you to present three scenarios—possible realities of what our children’s Internet might be like.

There’s the future I hope for, where the Internet will fade into the background and become the foundation for other things. The Internet won’t be a “thing” you get “on,” it’ll just be. We don’t dial-up anymore, and in the future we won’t think about whether we’re on Wi-Fi or 3G/LTE. It’ll just be on, everywhere, and we won’t think about it as a separate thing. Sure, we’ll still manage our information, tag it for various people or reasons, push and pull it in various ways, but we won’t care anymore about how. It’ll happen if we keep the Internet open, and it’ll start to happen when bandwidth becomes something we have in abundance, like we have enough memory, disk space, and processor speed now.

There’s the future I fear, where “walled gardens” fracture the Internet into a set of fiefdoms. Facebook already does this, and some Google services do as well—they require a login and treat their application as the ecosystem in which the world interacts. That’s where we’d be headed if net neutrality fails—we split into the haves and the have-nots. Money would buy access for some and deny it to others. That’s bad for the Internet because it undermines exactly the free interchange of information that led to things like Facebook and Google in the first place.

There’s the future we’re living in, where both of the above exist in tension. To me, that’s a failure of leadership and education. Economics and government both should teach us that free and open competition rely on regulation where there is a shared resource—the commons. It’d be truly disappointing to see that ignored.