Analyst Report: The New Net-Neutrality Debate: What’s the Best Way to Discriminate?

Analysis

Supporters and opponents of the Federal Communications Commission’s proposed net neutrality rules achieved a rare moment of agreement Thursday. Speaking at a panel discussion organized by the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Arts + Labs, Public Knowledge Legal Director Harold Feld, a strong proponent of the regulation, acknowledged that complete neutrality toward all bits on a network can never be achieved and should not be policymakers’ goal.

“We understand there has never been a day when all packets were treated equally,” Feld said.  “We understand that the Internet is a network of networks, and that has always meant there were opportunities for things like local caching content, for what companies like Akamai do, for private networks like Google, which hauls a lot of its own traffic and then contracts with other networks to move it out when necessary.”

Where Feld parted company with opponents of regulation was on the question of how to decide which bits are more equal than others. That question has quickly emerged as the crux of the debate since the FCC made clear that its definition of net neutrality includes allowances for “reasonable network management.”

“It’s a question of whether [broadband] providers are able to make decisions about prioritization on behalf of their users that are based on things other than engineering issues, that are based on things like economic rents or economic affiliation,” he said at Thursday’s event. Instead of leaving the decision up to providers, Feld says broadband users should be given the tools to do their own prioritizaton of bits, through packet marking and variable pricing, based on their own criteria.

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