Last fall, the Associated Press discovered that Comcast was secretly blocking its customers' peer-to-peer connections. The practice was a particularly blatant violation of the spirit of network neutrality -- the idea that ISPs should treat all traffic on their networks equally.
I say the "spirit" of network neutrality because there is currently no law that compels ISPs to be fair to all traffic. All ISPs promise they'll act in the best interests of their customers, but they're allowed to manage their traffic in a way that arbitrarily blocks specific applications -- and because most people don't have much choice in ISPs (you can get high-speed access from your local phone company or your local cable company), we're forced to live with their restrictions.
So the discovery of Comcast's peer-to-peer perfidy (like that?) was a big deal, and it put consumer advocates on the offensive: There should be a law, many demanded.
Today, the chairman of the FCC agreed -- or, at least, he seemed to.
At an all-day Federal Communications Commission hearing taking place at Harvard Law School, chairman Kevin Martin decreed that Comcast and other ISPs must manage their traffic "in an open and transparent way."
Martin favors rules that allow ISPs some leeway in how they manage traffic on their lines, but that also forces them to disclose what they're blocking and why. "While networks may have reasonable practices -- they obviously cannot operate without taking some reasonable steps -- but that does not mean they can arbitrarily block access to certain services," Martin said.
Well, but what does "reasonable steps" mean? That's why I say Martin appears to be taking a stand; it's not clear that his rule will amount to much. He seems to want to split the baby -- to give Comcast most of what it wants, but in a way that sparks little outrage.
Indeed, Comcast insists that its peer-to-peer blocking is reasonable (even though, as the AP showed, the practice occurs when people are sharing legal works in the public domain). The company says that it must block peer-to-peer traffic because people who use such services clog the network for everyone else. Would Martin agree?
It's comforting that Martin wants to do something, but looking into what's reasonable and what's not seems a fool's errand.
Network neutrality ought to mean just that: The network remains neutral about what you do on it. The network shouldn't care -- it shouldn't even know -- whether I am downloading a movie from YouTube or a Web page from Wikipedia. It ought to give me all content at the same rate, as fast as it can.
But wait, wouldn't this allow peer-to-peer users to hog the line? Sure, maybe -- but there's an easy way to get around that: Charge people for hogging the line.
Comcast advertises "unlimited" access. It tells people that they can do whatever they want with its connections. But that's a lie: When people take Comcast up on its unlimited offer, the company secretly reneges on the deal.
If Comcast doesn't have enough bandwith to support unlimited peer-to-peer connections -- as it clearly does not -- then it should say so, and begin to impose fees for high-bandwith users. That's the only reasonable way to police a network. Impose one price for "limited" access, impose another for "unlimited" access.
But such a policy would require truth in advertising, so don't count on it.