The big tech/social issues of 2012 so far have all focused on privacy, the ownership of content and the desire of corporations to be able to annex the private information of customers at will.
Cisco Systems is raising an older issue, however, in the process of complaining about new, even more restrictive privacy rules in the EU.
Net neutrality was a big issue last fall, when the FCC was hinting it might want to express some interest in the wired broadband networks that are one of its main regulatory charges. Carriers and networking companies who sell absurdly high capacity networking hardware to them both objected, claiming having the FCC regulate broadband Internet access – and, incidentally, impose some very weak net neutrality requirements – would raise the risk of building out giant, high-capacity fiber or other broadband networks far too high.
If cable and phone companies that now view themselves as ISPs were forced to treat customers as if they had the right to receive the Internet service they paid for – without performance and access problems caused by a service provider's refusal to give a competitor an even break – the whole cable and telecommunications industries would grind to a halt.
If Comcast, to pick one random example, were forced to treat network traffic from Netflix with exactly the same respect it treats streaming media from its own content-on-demand services, it would never be able to generate the obscene profits that might allow it to pay for expansions and upgrades to its broadband network.
In EU Privacy = Net Neutrality, Net Neutrality = No bonus for Cisco exec
In Europe, according to Chris Dedicoat, Cisco's president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, new privacy regulations and the net neutrality provisions that are implied in them but have not yet been made explicit, will rob tech companies of the motivation to build out broadband networks.
The connection between privacy and net neutrality is that sifting through data packets to decide which are non-competitive and give an incumbent carrier's services an edge in performance requires the physical invasion of data packets intended for the customer, a potentially unlimited breach of that customer's privacy.
That rationale is unique to Europe because corporate lobbying has steadily eroded consumer privacy protections in the U.S. to the point that, with just one or two new regulatory tweaks, consumers will have to pay extra to keep their Social Security numbers unlisted in giant private-data directories.
"I think that there's components of net neutrality that work, but I think you've also got to allow service providers to make investment," Dedicoat said during a Q&A after his speech. "Broadband isn't DSL; broadband is fiber, and if we're going to be able to create more efficiency in health services, we need bandwidth from the home as well as bandwidth to the home."
He does have a point; the same one Verizon, Comcast and other U.S.-based carriers have been making with such force the FCC basically caved in to the carrier version of net neutrality – adding it to the regulations, but allowing carriers tremendous leeway to "manage traffic" on their networks in whatever way they want – including throttling.
Republican Senators tried to enact a rule eliminating any justification for the FCC to regulate the Internet at all. They were voted down, 52 to 46, but may raise the issue again.
In the U.S. the main thrust is that if carriers can't mistreat customers, overcharge for services they never quite deliver and throttle the traffic of potential competitors, they'll never be able to make enough money to build out broadband nets all those abused consumers will love (as long as they don't expect to get to watch what they want).
Carriers are already under fire in the U.S. from private interests.
A professor at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society filed a complaint with the FCC after Verizon blocked Google's Wallet service from its new Internet phones. The issue, and the article she wrote about it, focus on wireless, but FCC rulings on net neutrality tend to cover both the wireline and wireless worlds.
The main point of the complaint was that violations of net neutrality hurt customers.
The main point of the Cisco complaint is that net neutrality hurts the ability of corporations to make even higher profits.
Given the imbalance between consumers and giant telcos, networking companies and ISPs in wealth, power, knowledge and access to regulators or lawmakers, I'd say the fair decision would have to lean toward the consumers.
Getting what you pay for may not be a sacred right – like access to health care, multicolored money and tiny cars whose controls are marked with inexplicable "universal" indicators of function.
It is a part of the contract Cisco, Verizon, Comcast and other service- or equipment providers signed with their customers.
Cheating them just to keep an advantage over a competitor doesn't seem a big enough advantage to allow it.
Unfortunately, unlike in Europe, legislators in this country seem to be in no real hurry to restrict the customer-abusing antics of Comcast, Verizon et al.
So for the time being we can expect it will be Netflix being throttled in this country, and the totalitarian urges of major corporations whose necks get squeezed in Europe.
Given the far higher bandwidth, lower costs and wider availability of both wired and wireless broadband in Europe, it's not hard to decide which delivers the best set of solutions to the people who pay for the Internet in the first place, and would like a chance to use it as they like.
Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.