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Defining Specialized Services

The FCC’s Open Internet Advisory Committee’s 2013 Annual Report has been posted. The OIAC is a civilian group, headed by Jonathan Zittrain [twitter:zittrain] . The report is rich, but I want to point to one part that I found especially interesting: the section on “specialized services.”

Specialized services are interesting because when the FCC adopted the Open Internet Order (its “Net Neutrality” policy), it permitted the carriers to use their Internet-delivery infrastructure to provide some specific type of content or service to side of the Internet. As Harold Feld put it in 2009, in theory the introduction of “managed services”

allows services like telemedicine to get dedicated capacity without resorting to “tiering” that is anathema to network neutrality. In reality, is great new way for incumbents to privilege their own VOIP and video services over traffic of others.

The danger is that the providers will circumvent the requirement that they not discriminate in favor of their own content (or in favor of content from companies that pay them) by splintering off that content and calling it a a special service. (For better explanations, check Technoverse, Ars Technica, Commissioner Copps’ statement.)

So, a lot comes down to the definition of a “specialized service.” This Annual Report undertakes the challenge. The summary begins on page 9, and the full section begins on p. 66.

I won’t pretend to have the expertise to evaluate the definitions. But I do like the principles that guided the group:

  • Regulation should not create a perverse incentive for operators to move away from a converged IP infrastructure

  • A service should not be able to escape regulatory burden or acquire a burden by moving to IP

The Specialized Services group was led by David Clark, and manifests a concern for what Jonathan Zittrain calls “generativity“: it’s not enough to measure the number of bits going through a line to a person’s house; we also have to make sure that the user is able to do more with those bits than simply consume them.

I’m happy to see the Committee address the difficult issue of specialized services, and to do so with the clear intent of (a) not letting access to the open Internet be sacrificed, and(b) not allowing special services to be an end run around an open Internet.

Note: Jonathan Zittrain is my boss’ boss at the Harvard Law Library. I’ve known him through the Berkman Center for ten years before that.

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