Internet service providers (ISPs) and net neutrality activists appear increasingly interested in a proposal that would give consumers more control over their Internet service, a hopeful sign for compromise in the debate about whether all Internet traffic should be treated equally.
Speaking at an FCC roundtable Tuesday, Stanford University net neutrality scholar Barbara van Schewick said that, under certain conditions, letting Internet users individually control which Web sites were delivered at a faster or slower speed by their ISP would not violate the principle of net neutrality.
The roundtable was held a day after the Federal Communications Commission closed its net neutrality proceeding to new comments from the public.
Van Schewick's idea is similar to a proposal that AT&T outlined this summer that would ban Internet providers from manipulating Web content — which is the FCC's goal — unless users specifically requested it. Under these approaches, known as "user-directed prioritization," consumers could ask their ISP to give streaming video priority over cloud storage traffic, or to give streaming music preferential treatment over online video games. Broadly, the practice could shift economic power for potentially determining the rise and fall of Internet businesses from ISPs to consumers; if implemented under the right conditions, user-directed or user-controlled prioritization could prevent ISPs from abusing their potential role as a gatekeeper.
"The rules we propose would allow for user-controlled prioritization," van Schewick confirmed. She warned that for user-directed prioritization to work, however, it would have to give consumers the leverage. Broadband providers should not be able to discriminate among specific applications — Hulu versus Netflix, for example. Instead, discrimination would need to be "application-agnostic." Customers should be able to choose whether to enable prioritization, said van Schewick. And only consumers who opt in, not content companies, should have to pay for that extra layer of service, she said.
Van Schewick's comments came in response to a question by FCC officials on the subject — a sign that the agency is taking the idea of user-controlled prioritization seriously.
Proponents of lighter Internet regulation, such the Consumer Electronics Association, said user-directed prioritization could be a viable alternative to giving ISPs the power to prioritize Web traffic independently.
"If you build it, they will come," said CEA policy executive Julie Kearney, "and I'm sure there are ISPs who will listen, hopefully, to consumers and say, 'Maybe that works with my business plan.'"
The renewed focus on user-directed prioritization marks a shift in the net neutrality debate, which has been largely dominated by a dispute over whether the FCC should begin to regulate ISPs more heavily under Title II of the Communications Act. While van Schewick and fellow net neutrality lawyer Marvin Ammori pointed out substantial remaining differences between their proposal and AT&T's on Tuesday — and although there are still questions about the idea's legal viability, as I wrote Monday — the change in tone is remarkable.