In Kevin Martin, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under George W Bush, Facebook has just hired a moderate on the all-important issue of network neutrality.
One of his first challenges: to prevent a repeat of the backlash seen in India last month against Facebook’s Internet.org, which critics see as a blatant attempt by the social network to colonise the mobile internet.
Though a Republican, Martin oversaw the FCC’s first action against a US cable company over a net neutrality issue. That was back in 2008, when the agency challenged Comcast’s policy of “throttling”, or slowing, some types of internet traffic.
Martin used his casting vote to side with two Democratic commissioners.
Yet he was far from being a hard-liner on the issue. In particular, he later said that he would not have used so-called Title II regulation to keep networks open – the very approach that has been proposed by the Obama administration this year, with strong backing from Silicon Valley.
Martin’s attempt to restrain Comcast ultimately failed. After he left the agency, a court threw out the FCC’s order. That prompted his successor to announce a stronger net neutrality stance – which was again rejected by a court, leading to the Obama administration’s present position.
Beneath the simplistic headlines (who wouldn’t want to keep networks open?), net neutrality is set to remain the most challenging policy issue for global communication networks and the services which ride on them – which makes Martin’s new job, as vice president for mobile and global access policy, a key one at Facebook.
That net neutrality is a double-edged sword for internet companies was underlined by what happened in India last month. A group of companies there withdrew from Internet.org in protest over zero-rating, under which the use of services like Facebook on mobile do not count against a user’s data plan.
That approach amounts to a form of network bias, they complained, since it encourages users to tap into “free” services, to the detriment of others.
The issues are not exactly the same as those raised in the US debate over network neutrality this year. But it didn’t take a crystal ball to see that zero-rating would become the next big issue in the global debate over network access, particularly in markets where mobile is all.
This was what Mark Zuckerberg blogged in response to the backlash in India:
[But] net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. These two principles — universal connectivity and net neutrality — can and must coexist.
To give more people access to the internet, it is useful to offer some service for free. If someone can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all.
It will now be up to former FCC chairman Martin to sell that idea around the world.
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