Friday, July 08, 2005

A Call to Arms to Protect the Internet:

Jeff Pulver - The Jeff Pulver Blog


I am growing increasingly concerned that end-users are losing the battle over control of the Internet. What is it that Internet innovators, entrepreneurs and users need? It’s pretty simple: we need robust, IP-capable broadband pipes, the freedom to access the content and applications of our choice and the right to attach equipment of our choice to our end of the broadband pipe. A few legal and policy conclusions have emerged that are dramatically affecting consumer control over the Internet and communications experience.
(1) With the whittling away of unbundled wholesale access to broadband pipes, consumers have lost some choice among alternate providers of broadband access. On the flip side, some would argue that that was a necessary prerequisite to encourage last mile access providers to deploy more robust broadband pipes to end users. I don’t want to delve into that debate here. Suffice it to say, that both positions have some merit.
(2) With the Supreme Court’s Brand X decision, consumers will likely have fewer choices among Internet service providers, as both cable and wireline broadband access providers are less compelled to provide unaffiliated ISPs access to end users. So one side of the argument goes, this too will encourage last mile access providers more financial incentive to deploy more robust broadband pipes. On the flip side, it does seem like it would have been a positive, competitive check, to ensure that consumers had a choice among a multitude of Internet service providers.
(3) Regulators, in an effort to ensure the public good, have begun to impose some social obligations on information service providers (at least those offering voice application that interconnect to the public switched telephone network). We have seen this move in the US and Canada with regard to emergency response obligations. We are likely to see similar government compelled obligations with regard to lawful intercept and, perhaps, disabilities access. I suspect the lawful intercept obligations will go even further than the emergency response rules and impose obligations even upon purer, peer-to-peer communications networks.
Thus, the previously regulated telecom carriers are becoming less subject to regulatory checks and oversight (with regard to both access and pricing obligations). There is less of an affirmative duty to ensure that end user might obtain service from competing telecom carriers and unaffiliated ISPs. Conversely, there is movement on the other side to impose some social obligations (akin to those traditionally imposed upon common carriers), upon information service and application providers. As a result, unaffiliated application service providers are getting slammed from both sides: the prospect of social obligations on the one hand, and less access to alternative broadband access providers on the other hand.
There is a way to minimize the potential harm to end-user control and guaranteed end-user access by unaffiliated Internet application and content providers, without the market power and bargaining leverage to ensure just and reasonable access to end users. Call it what you will – Net Freedom, Net Neutrality, Connectivity Principles, a layered regulatory model, expedited, administratively-enforced, antitrust-like rules, consumer empowerment – but there does need to be some affirmative rule in place that will ensure that the END-USER and no one else, controls the user experience.
We do not yet have any long-term guarantee that consumers will have a choice among alternative application service providers. We saw the FCC, in its Madison River Consent Decree, declare that a telecom carrier may not block ports to deny the user access to unaffiliated VoIP providers. That decision becomes somewhat suspect in a post Brand X America. Furthermore, I am not aware of any other country that has taken affirmative steps to prohibit port blocking or other anticompetitive practices that would preclude the consumer from controlling her own bitstream.
We must not become complacent and assume that government understands our concerns while they write the rules that will shape the future of communications and the Internet. Certainly those with the money and lobbying muscle are not standing by. We have to engage. We don’t need to ask for much – just for a few certain consumer empowerment rules -- but we do need to ask.
It is essential that governments around the world understand the power and value of IP technology and the Internet to radically enhance the ways in which we communicate. They all must adopt meaningful rules ensuring and enforcing consumer empowerment and net freedom.
Without the ability for consumers to rely on alternate Internet service providers, unaffiliated with the access provider, there is an immediate, compelling need for government to adopt enforceable consumer empowerment rules. End users, innovators and entrepreneurs need an assurance that government will not tolerate any effort by any entity to unreasonably affect a consumer’s access to the Internet content and applications of her choice, and the right to attach the devices of her choice to her end of her communications pipe. The real power of the Internet rests in the ability of the consumer to reach it and control her own experience. The one rule that must apply is that last-mile network owners must not be permitted to harm consumer control and freedom.
I have tried at various times to build coalition and incite the movement. Over the years I held a couple of “Internet Freedom Rallies” on the Steps of the US Capitol. I have tried to unite the IP-based communications industry through such coalitions as the VON Coalition and the Global IP Alliance. I have tried to make the VON Conferences and my other conferences (such as my newly emerging Peripheral Visionaries’ Summits) places to hammer out the issues, build the community and consensus. I don’t care much what vehicles we use to communicate these messages, but we, as a community of Internet users, innovators and entrepreneurs, cannot afford to sit silently on the sidelines while governments write the rules that will shape our future.
I encourage you all to look to our efforts with the Global IP Alliance and consider becoming a member. If your schedules permit, I encourage you to join us at the Fall 2005 VON Conference in Boston, September 19-22, or at our Peripheral Visionaries' Policy Summit in DC on Nov. 10th, or at any of our other international conferences. We intend to use the Peripheral Visionaries Conference, in particular, as a vehicle to communicate these essential themes to US legislators and policymakers.
If you are interested in joining with us, but do not currently have the financial resources to commit to the fight to protect end user control of the Internet, please send an email to my General Counsel, Jonathan Askin, jaskin at pulver.com, and we will keep you in the loop as the battle proceeds.

10 Comments:

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