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The Open Internet

WebI will believe it when I see it confirmed — hopefully in the Spring — but looks like the FCC commissioners understand the importance of an open Internet. Net neutrality is a really really important issue with far reaching implications. Unfortunately, the term net neutrality has become politicized and means different things to different people but I think we can all identify with things that are not net neutral.

Suppose Comcast makes an exclusive deal with ESPN. You read about it in the news and you go to the newly advertised ESPN web page and it says, “This page only available to readers who use Comcast as their Internet service provider”. You use Verizon or AT&T so you can not get access to the new ESPN content.  Or how about going to a healthcare site and finding out you can no longer get access to your electronic medical record unless you change Internet service providers. Perhaps extreme examples, but possible. There have been various efforts over the past fifteen years to “balkanize” the Internet — in other words create internets within the Internet. I recall one effort that I was asked to get involved with — but of course declined — was to create a “New York Web”. It was to be a “private” internet with no access to or from the Internet. A really bad idea which fortunately got no traction. The Federal government has also considered various unique internets to provide enhanced security.
Not that the open Internet we have today is perfect. It isn’t. There are many shortcomings but they are being addressed through an open global standards-based approach. That is what makes the Internet unique and why it has attracted more than a billion users. Think of something else that works the same everywhere in the world — currency? railroad track sizes? which side of the road to drive on? electrical sockets and plugs? I can not think of anything that works exactly the same in every corner of the globe — and even in outer space — except the Internet. It is really impotant to keep it that way. Why? I cite a number of examples in Net Attitude but there are new reasons popping up every day.

Global tracking of diseases so that medical assistance can be where it is needed is made possible by the Internet. The World Community Grid is running virtual chemistry experiments to determine which of the millions of small molecules can attach to the influenza virus and inhibit it from spreading. There is the potential to make the world a better place because of this project. Using the Internet to connect millions of idle PC’s around the world, the grid is able to work as one massive supercomputer. Not to be minimized is the ability of the global Internet to prevent many countries from oppressing their people as the net provides a way to get out the word on what is actually happening. Last but not least is the power of the Internet to allow a really good idea from anywhere in the world to find an interest by someone in any other part of the world and thereby spawn innovation and new businesses.

I am confident that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski completely understands all this but there are others who are threatened. Although the FCC voted unanimously to allow the rule making to go forward it faces enormous lobbying over the months ahead from Internet service providers like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Qwest. They say that net neutrality would strip them of the ability to manage their networks effectively and that it would stifle innovation and competition. The providers do not want to be just providers of “dumb pipes” for the Internet. They want to move up the value chain and get involved with the content where there is potentially more profit. No problem with content deals as long as they don’t violate net neutrality.

This is not a matter of government regulating the Internet. That would be a bad thing. What it does mean is that the government would prevent providers from closing off how the Internet works.