Sunday, February 24, 2008

You Don't Need a Harvard Education

When I was a kid, my mother was wont to say, “you don’t need a Harvard education,” to understand thus and so. She didn’t necessarily mean it as an insult to other educational institutions, but she did mean to say that some things ought not to require a college degree to appreciate.

The FCC commissioners are at Harvard Law School today for a hearing on “broadband network management practices.” The hearing takes place as the agency is receiving comments in response to two petitions. One asks the Commission to declare that Comcast’s and other broadband providers’ handling of peer-to-peer traffic violates the FCC’s Internet Policy Statement. The other asks it to initiate a rulemaking to define in advance what constitute “reasonable network management” for broadband network operators.

The Free Press and its net neutrality advocate allies will use the hearing to try to turn up the heat on the FCC to force net neutrality mandates – that is, old-fashioned public utility regulation — on the broadband providers. Even a cursory review of the Free Press comments filed in the Commission’s broadband industry practices proceeding makes clear that they want an absolute, no-exceptions policy prohibiting any so-called “discriminatory” treatment of Internet bytes, regardless of whether such treatment is necessary and proper in the interest of reasonable network management, much less in the interest of overall efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

You don’t need a Harvard education to see that the net neutrality advocates are trying to draw the FCC into adopting broad net neutrality regulation through the back door, even as they continue their frontal assault. In the Free State Foundation comments filed with the FCC on February 12, I said it is imperative for the Commission “to articulate and demonstrate its understanding that network managers must be given wide berth to manage their networks in the general interest of all their consumers, not smaller segments with narrower interests.” I explained it would be foolhardy, in today’s dynamic and fast-changing technological and marketplace environment, for the FCC to attempt to define in advance what constitutes “reasonable network management.” And I said the Commission’s explicit policy should be, “absent clear and convincing evidence demonstrating substantial consumer harm, it will not act in a way that interferes with broadband providers’ management of their networks.”

You don’t need a Harvard education to know the FCC is ill-suited to play the role of uber-network manager. With all the challenges presented by the explosive growth of Internet usage, especially the explosion in peer-to-peer traffic, and by the persistence of ever-changing forms of malicious traffic, even highly paid, highly-qualified full-time network engineers have a tough time managing broadband networks in a way that provides a satisfactory Internet experience to all their subscribers.

Finally, as my mother would have reminded, you don’t need a Harvard education to know that if you get on a slippery slope, you are likely to find yourself sliding down to a bad place. The FCC should be very careful to avoid being lured onto the slippery slope of a full-blown net neutrality regime under the guise of dictating what constitutes reasonable network management.