Washington policymakers face several decisions in 2006 that will affect networking for years to come.
The overarching challenge on Capitol Hill and at federal regulatory agencies will be to prevent rapidly evolving Internet services from clashing with the decades-old policy framework for security, privacy protection, law enforcement needs and communications subsidies.
Lawmakers have two major IT-related measures teed up for action next year: data breach notification and spyware regulation. Numerous bills were passed this year on both topics, and popular pressure is mounting for passage of new laws to improve data privacy and security next year.
At the Federal Communications Commission, IT services historically have been given a break when it comes to rules that ensure consumer protection, universal affordability and access for law enforcement. However, VOIP (voice over IP) changed all that, and while the regulatory mantra for the Internet next year will continue to be restraint, regulation is undeniably creeping in.
So far, the FCC has established what appears to be an inconsistent approach to the problem of classifying Internet-based services for the purpose of regulation. Put in a more favorable light, the FCC argues that "the term information service must be interpreted differently in different contexts," said Sam Feder, FCC acting general counsel, in Washington.
Next year, the struggle to regulate Internet-based phone services while appearing not to regulate the Internet will receive renewed focus as a wide array of industry, consumer protection and civil liberties groups pursue court challenges of rules subjecting interconnected VOIP providers to wiretap requirements.
These requirements, which apply the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act to VOIP, would impose enormous costs to re-engineer networks, introduce complexities that could lead to less security and impinge on privacy rights, the challengers argue.
A similar clash between old and new telecommunications forces will take place on Capitol Hill, where the newly fortified Bell Operating Companies will continue to lobby for telecom reform legislation that reduces their regulatory obligations. User advocates and many content and application developers will seek policies to maintain unfettered user access to Internet applications running over devices of the users choosing, which they call "Net neutrality," but the Bells have a different notion of online fairness.
"As soon as we start constraining the availability of access to the Internet ... we should think twice about that," said Vint Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google Inc., based in Mountain View, Calif. "Let the customer mark the packets, and let the customer say which ones need to be prioritized."
The Bells, which own most of the last-mile connections to most users, argue that access providers should be given the flexibility to charge Web sites to prioritize traffic. Their own traffic, it is safe to assume, would be given top priority. Providers should be allowed to offer varying degrees of treatment to online vendors willing to pay for it because that will enable them to differentiate their own services, said Thomas Tauke, senior vice president for public policy and external affairs at New York-based Verizon Communications Inc.
"We do not believe that the Net neutrality principles should be put into regulation," Tauke said at a policy debate in Washington earlier this month. "The FCC cant possibly anticipate how technology will develop or how the marketplace will develop."