FCC Net Neutrality Ruling Makes For Strange Bedfellows

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Some of net neutrality's biggest champions this week found themselves in the unusual position of agreeing with opponents that a U.S. appeals court did the right thing in ruling against the Federal Communications Commission for sanctioning Comcast after the company "throttled" peer-to-peer Internet traffic for some of its subscribers.

How is it that some advocates on either side of the net neutrality debate found common ground in applauding Tuesday's unanimous decision in favor of Comcast by three judges sitting on the D.C. federal Court of Appeals panel?

For opponents of net neutrality -- the proposed policy that Internet service providers (ISPs) must be "neutral" to data being shipped over their pipes to subscribers and not intentionally slow or throttle the transfer of certain types of files or sharing between certain parties -- the reasoning seems pretty straightforward.

Simply put, the federal government should not be in the business of regulating how ISPs manage their networks, they said.

"The idea that this ruling will invite bad behavior is nonsense," former Bush administration technology policymaker Bruce Mehlman told the San Jose Mercury News. "Companies need to manage their networks to handle high volumes of traffic and bona fide threats out there, but we're simply not going to see blocking or degrading of disfavored sites. It would be bad business and it would beg for regulatory overkill."

But what of net neutrality advocates' main concern, that there is a major problem when ISPs are free to slow or speed up Internet traffic for the purpose of charging more for or even banning the transfer of certain types of content to subscribers from certain individuals or suppliers?

"[T]he market will do what it usually does: solve problems on its own," claimed business professor Joel West in a Seeking Alpha column. Similar "sturm und drang" about the blocking of VoIP services by mobile carriers proved unfounded when "overwhelming consumer demand" pressured the carriers to keep supplying their subscribers with services like Skype, he argued. Net neutrality advocates who nevertheless supported the ruling against the FCC appeared to have a more nuanced interpretation of the situation. Essentially, they would like to see Congress pass an actual law defining net neutrality and establishing its regulation, rather than have the loosely enforced policy that's been shoe-horned into the FCC portfolio without any legislative backing.

In that sense, Tuesday's ruling was the right one for several reasons, argued Fred Von Lohmann of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a long-time advocate of net neutrality.


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