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Tuesday, December 21, 2010, 06:00 pm PT (09:00 pm ET)

Wozniak defends free internet; mobile networks get exemptions from net neutrality

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak wrote an open letter to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in support of a free Internet, while the Commission approved rules in support of net neutrality with exemptions for mobile networks, citing Android's "openness" as a reason for more lax restrictions on cellular carriers.

Woz's open letter

Wozniak begins his letter, which was published by The Atlantic, with personal anecdotes about how phone, cable, and DSL network restrictions have harmed him as a consumer. In 1972, Wozniak started a "dial-a-joke" service, but had to shut it down because restrictions from the phone company, which had a monopoly, made it prohibitively expensive.

According to the letter, Wozniak has never had cable or DSL in the four homes he has owned in his life. "The local phone providers don't have any obligation to serve all of their phone customers with DSL," Wozniak wrote, "They also have no requirement to service everyone living in the geographic area for which they have a monopoly."

Wozniak even offered to the local cable company to pay for the cost of laying the three-quarters of a mile of cable, but was turned down because the cable company decided it couldn't make up the monthly rental costs for "running their cable on telephone poles."

As a child, Wozniak was taught that the Constitution and Bill of Rights were mainly what made America a great country. However, "Over my lifetime, I've seen those rights disregarded at every step," wrote Wozniak.

"The early Internet was so accidental, it also was free and open in this sense," Wozniak continued. "The Internet has become as important as anything man has ever created. But those freedoms are being chipped away."

Strengthening his tone, Wozniak then petitioned the FCC to preserve net neutrality. "Please, I beg you, open your senses to the will of the people to keep the Internet as free as possible. Local ISP's should provide connection to the Internet but then it should be treated as though you own those wires and can choose what to do with them when and how you want to, as long as you don't destruct them.

"I don't want to feel that whichever content supplier had the best government connections or paid the most money determined what I can watch and for how much. This is the monopolistic approach and not representative of a truly free market in the case of today's Internet."

Wozniak then cites his role in co-founding Apple as an example. "Imagine that when we started Apple we set things up so that we could charge purchasers of our computers by the number of bits they use," he wrote, asserting that "the personal computer revolution would have been delayed by a decade or more."

When asked to "sign on" to the Net Neutrality cause, Wozniak realized that "every time and in every way that the telecommunications careers have had power or control, we the people wind up getting screwed."

Wozniak concludes his letter by asking the FCC to be the good guy. "We have very few government agencies that the populace views as looking out for them, the people. The FCC is one of these agencies that is still wearing a white hat. Not only is current action on Net Neutrality one of the most important times ever for the FCC, it's probably the most momentous and watched action of any government agency in memorable times in terms of setting our perception of whether the government represents the wealthy powers or the average citizen, of whether the government is good or is bad."

Measured steps

Possibly taking cues from a joint proposal from Google and Verizon advocating mobile exemptions from net neutrality, the FCC approved lighter net neutrality requirements for wireless carriers Tuesday, MacNN reports.

The FCC ruling requires companies running both wired and wireless networks to transparently disclose network management and "prevent blocking of legal, safe apps as well as similar devices and services," the report noted.

In an official statement by Chairman Julius Genachowski, the FCC argued that wireless networks didn't need the same protection from "unreasonable discrimination" as wired access, citing the "openness" of wireless networks as the reason.

"We recognize that there have been meaningful recent moves toward openness, including the introduction of open operating systems like Android," said Genachowski. "In addition, we anticipate soon seeing the effects on the market of the openness conditions we imposed on mobile providers that operate on upper 700 MHz C-Block spectrum, which includes Verizon Wireless, one of the largest mobile wireless carriers in the U.S."

"In light of these considerations," he continued, "we conclude it is appropriate to take measured steps at this time to protect the openness of the Internet when accessed through mobile broadband."

Google's role in its joint proposal with Verizon came as a surprise to some, as it was taken as a change of sides by the search giant. Google's previous stance of strongly advocating "open networks" free of data discrimination switched to favoring mobile exemptions from net neutrality.

Pundits were mystified by the FCC's argument that the openness of Google's Android mobile OS justifies exemptions for wireless carriers. "It doesn't matter how open your OS is when you're stuck with a filtered and throttled connection, and it's a pretty huge stretch to think Android's openness (however you want to define it) has anything to do with network access itself," Nilay Patel of Engadget wrote.

Verizon itself has used Android's openness to ban features and block apps, even going so far as to block Google search widgets on some phones.