Non-Regulation Blues

If there’s one subject guaranteed to raise the blood pressures of Internet company execs and Netizens alike, it’s Internet regulation.

Aside from countries such as China, which actually tries to regulate Internet content, many industrialized nations are leery of going too far. That is, until their citizens complain about Net porn, Nigerian banking scams and the constantly growing amount of e-mail spam arriving each day.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski recently addressed regulation issues, indicating the commission might regulate wireless networks much the same way it regulates hardwired conduits, which essentially means little or no regulation at all.

Normally, a government official favoring less regulation for an industry is often considered a friend by those he or she oversees. But wireless network operators have expressed doubts as to whether their networks can effectively operate under the same rules and regs their physically connected brethren abide by.

In other words, some wireless network operators might prefer more, not less regulation.

One of the main issues is “Net neutrality,” the concept that all traffic should be treated equally. If regulated in a manner similar to wired networks, wireless operators might have to open their networks to traffic that until now, has been prohibited from their systems.

For example, AT&T prohibits file sharing on its wireless network, but if Net neutrality standards are applied, the company might be forced to allow its users to swap files regardless of traffic congestion.

Genachowski’s position is somewhat confusing. He’s on record as saying he wants to apply wired Internet traffic principles to wireless networks but at the same time hasn’t backed off from treating WiFi somewhat differently. Plus, he’s proposing a rule that would prohibit ISPs from hampering certain types of traffic.

The FCC sanctioned Comcast last year for secretly disrupting peer-to-peer file-sharing traffic. At that time the ISP was interrupting file-trading between two computers on its network by sending “hang up” notices to both sender and receiver – a procedure considered to be in violation of Net neutrality concepts.

Regarding Comcast’s P2P interruptions, the FCC said it relies on broad “principles” of open access that, up until then, hadn’t been tested. Comcast’s response was to file suit against the commission, saying the FCC had no authority to regulate what it did with its own networks. That case is still in federal appeals court.

But it’s easier to talk about Net neutrality than it is to uphold the basic principles behind the concept. It’s hardly a service to users if an ISP allows its network to become so congested that all traffic slows to a crawl. However, any attempts to prevent congestion by moderating or policing data flow often results in accusations of favoring one type of traffic at the expense of another.

For example, Cox Communications is reportedly testing a system that slows traffic the company determines to be less time-sensitive. What kind of traffic? Apparently data movement such as downloads and software updates. Of course, it’s always time-sensitive if you’re sitting in front of your computer waiting for the download or update to complete.

Meanwhile, David Young, VP of federal regulatory affairs at Verizon Communications, says he’s happy that the FCC chairman does not appear to favor an intensely regulated Internet. In Young’s opinion, carriers should be free to experiment with different methods of handling network congestion, otherwise technology development might be slowed.

“The concern is that it will stifle innovation, investment and growth,” Young said. “To dramatically change the 15-year policy of the United States government to not regulate the Internet is a pretty radical thing and should be driven by a very real and present need to do so.”

A Failure To Communicate

Do you own a Palm Pre? Can it connect with iTunes?

Apple and Palm played their own private game of Whac-A-Mole during the summer, with each company trying to block the other’s latest software development.

At issue was Apple’s iTunes monopoly. Currently, only Apple’s own devices, specifically iPods and iPhones, can connect and synch with the popular music-management software.

But Palm tried to change that in June when the company released the $200 Palm Pre, the first non-Apple device capable of connecting directly to iTunes.

How did Palm do it? Simply put, it constructed the Pre to act like either an iPod or iPhone, thereby fooling iTunes into accepting the mobile device as one of its own.

Apple quickly countered Palm by updating the iTunes software. However, Palm retaliated by updating the Pre’s software so that when it connected to iTunes via a USB hub, the device would give out the hardware vendor code assigned to Apple by the USB Implementers Forum.

Needless to say, Apple wasn’t too thrilled with Palm spoofing the vendor code. The company made a few more changes and now the latest version of iTunes refuses to get along with the Pre.

With the ball in Palm’s court, the company decided to stop its upgrade feud with Apple and appeal to a higher authority – the USB Implementers Forum – claiming Apple was improperly using its USB code to stifle competition.

But instead of siding with Palm, the Forum warned the company that any attempt to use Apple’s vendor code would be a violation of the group’s rules. The forum then asked Palm to clarify its intentions regarding connecting the Pre to iTunes and to respond to the group within a week.

A Palm representative said the company contacted the USB Implementers Forum because it felt consumers should be able to make their own decisions regarding which devices to use for playing music and video.

Meanwhile, Apple hasn’t commented on the matter, preferring instead to let its iTunes updates do the talking. And right now those updates have ensured that iTunes does not talk to the Palm Pre.