It's not easy math.
• If Internet provider A offers fiber Internet plan B, but doesn't want website C to run as quickly – or at all – can it be dictated in Terms of Service D?
• If Internet provider E doesn't allow customers to use router F – or write blog G using Internet application H – is it in violation of net neutrality rule X?
So rages the debate in American courts over whether ISPs can:
a) Legally throttle access to certain sites, or block them, and
b) Restrict the use of servers on home broadband connections – or define it
Central to the argument is Google. Once the champion of the net neutrality movement, Google is now staunchly opposed to the idea that ISPs should operate without promotion of any service or site, nor obstruct any service or site accessed on that connection.
Who is right? How will that dictate how ISPs operate?
Google's pair of 180s on neutrality
Google's flip-flop stance has two chapters.
Initially, Google implored user to "take action to protect Internet freedom," in executive chairman Eric Schmidt's note in summer 2006. Schmidt's communique warned of a bill that "would give the big phone and cable companies the power to pick and choose what you will be able to see and do on the Internet."
But with a planned business-class version of its 1Gbps fiber Internet, Google switched lanes.
Citing "no enforceable protections" of carrier discrimination against Internet traffic, Google in 2010 allied with Verizon to give the Federal Communications Commission power to preserve an open Internet. Namely, the FCC would prevent carriers from blocking or degrading wireless Internet traffic.
Google, citing a "spirit of compromise," put the brakes on its original version of net neutrality, in favor of keeping a market free of regulation, at least temporarily, dependent on Congress to keep watch.
In October 2013, Google made another U-turn.
Amid public pressure regarding its fence-straddling stance, Google updated its terms of service. Absent from the new document: Prohibition of the use of servers on its fiber networks. Its ban on servers, enacted to protect consumers from bandwidth hogs, also trampled uses common to average users.
The old terms of service blocked email servers, nanny cams and peer-to-peer software – not exactly threats to overall bandwidth availability.
Google now allows server use for noncommercial, home use. It heard the people, and reacted. But it doesn't go far enough to help Internet commerce. Small businesses and innovative websites are still left behind. For them, with restrictions still on for those entities, hurdles still remain.
Google – and any big broadband player – is justified when it blocks content that could harm its network or customers' devices. Most providers guard against spam, malware, and other web-born threats.
But when providers slow or block non-threatening applications and sites out of concern for "quality of service," or in the loosely-interpreted spirit of "reasonable network management" it's nothing short of a manipulation of terms.
It’s closer in intent to foreign governments outlawing websites or using high-tech software to seek out terms and punish bloggers who use them.
The 1996 Telecommunications Act leaves too many terms ambiguously defined to prevent ISPs from a clamp down on sites and apps outside their best interest, and promoting those that will serve their business model. Or any interest, including political.
Open Internet as we know it in the western world would be at peril.
Terms must be defined
Let's take a look at terms that could use a better foundation:
"May not reasonably" impair, interfere, restrict
The 1996 Telecommunications Act doesn't define what's unreasonable, though. The phrase refers to certain classes of ISPs and their right to limit or ban Internet apps and services on their networks. Those Internet apps allow us to:
• Download music
• Listen to online radio stations
• Make Internet video-conference sessions and phone calls
• Play online games
• Send email
• Use instant messenger programs
• Watch videos
Until the FCC can specifically define "unreasonable," ISPs could toss that net far and wide.
"Quality of service"
Caps and throttles of bandwidth aren't new to ISPs. Neither is the controversy around each practice.
Throttling is often used to limit the bandwidth a device can access to prevent it from overload of its capacity to process. A cap restricts the speed of data transfer, on upload and download. Both are implemented to reduce network congestion.
As "quality of service" stands, it's open for interpretation that could allow ISPs to restrict just about any app or site. It also allows for ISPs to tier the Internet. They could charge more money for access to the top level (few or no restrictions) for consumers and app providers.
ISPs might also offer a less-comprehensive, heavily moderated version of an Internet experience for those who don't upgrade.
Such interpretation could also allow an ISP to regulate access to certain search engines or news sites, and default to the engines and sites of their own preference.
The threat of a fast-and-loose perception of these and other terms in the Act is more than forcing users to pay more for what they do online or funneling them to the ISPs search engine of choice. Your ability to watch movies and TV shows, make Internet phone calls, and provide a household network for your family's enabled devices is certainly at risk.
If ISPs continue this march on open Internet, web innovators who create the next Amazon, Pandora or Twitter might have the window of opportunity slammed shut before they can get started. Sites will die or thrive at the discretion of the ISP giants and those who can afford to pay their way into favor.
And all those things we love to do online – and accept as free – will have a price tag attached.