Q&A: Eduard Goodman

Net neutrality

Sunday, August 01, 2010
After the Federal Communications Commission suffered a setback this April in its effort to maintain unrestricted, equal access to the Internet for all users through a doctrine called Net neutrality, the Federal Trade Commission now is preparing to pick up the reins again. CyberScout’s chief privacy officer, Eduard Goodman—an attorney and expert on international privacy and data protection law—believes the Net neutrality debate is sure to reach fever pitch over the next year, and that the fallout may shape the way people get information online.

What is Net neutrality?
It’s the current practice of giving equal treatment to all online traffic—regardless of its content, where it comes from or where it’s going. Think of the Internet as a series of pipes that information can be routed through. Net neutrality stops Internet Service Providers—any company you use to connect your computer to the Internet—from putting a filter on those pipes, which would affect the flow of information through them by allowing ISPs to give certain traffic preferential treatment.

Why should people care?
Information wants to be free. Net neutrality protects Internet-user privacy regarding how (and what) information gets exchanged online. The Internet is also the one forum that currently allows large and small players to compete equally, resulting in low-cost high bandwidth for consumers. Net neutrality lets innovative services flourish in an environment where ISPs aren’t limiting traffic and/or peeking into any interaction consumers have with the Internet to monitor the content it contains.

Why do detractors want to change the status quo?
ISPs and large media companies argue that by investing in networks and copyrighted content, they should be able to determine how and what information flows through their “pipes.” This would allow ISPs to create new revenue by creating multitier access to the Internet. So, for example, big companies potentially could buy preferential treatment so that ISPs highlight their news, products or services and restrict Internet users from obtaining competing or disparaging information.

So if Net neutrality crumbles, ISPs could monitor and steer online interactions?
In theory, yes. “Traffic shaping” would allow an ISP to turn down the amount of bandwidth available if a person downloads or streams large, bandwidth-heavy files using file-sharing applications such as BitTorrent. However, in order to do this, the ISP would have to peek inside packets to determine the types of files being sent and received between users and websites they are visiting.

That seems like a breach of free speech and user privacy.
While I understand the motivation of ISPs, I feel that anything other than Net neutrality is contrary to the ideals that the modern Internet was founded on. I’m opposed to companies accessing my Internet traffic content to determine whether or not it deserves preferential treatment on their networks. It would mean that at the most fundamental level of the Internet, privacy would be nonexistent. Net neutrality adds another layer of privacy to a multilayered approach to general privacy online.

Why is this debate getting so much recent national attention?
Net neutrality has been a pressing topic since the Internet was first commercialized, but it’s been in regular debate since the dot-com bust. This spring, a federal appeals court indicated that the FCC lacked authority to regulate the management of web traffic in a case against ISP Comcast, which has since started limiting the speed at which its users download via BitTorrent. But the FTC has broader powers, and its attitude is that everyone deserves privacy and access to the Internet equally. The debate should play out over the next year or so, since the FTC has made it clear it’s going to gun for Net neutrality.

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