Two important legal decisions were made this week that could have significant impact on technology startups.
On Tuesday, a U.S. Federal Appeals Court determined that the FCC had overstepped its regulatory authority in demanding that Comcast cease its "throttling" of peer-to-peer service users. And on Wednesday, the U.K. House of Commons approved the "Digital Economy Bill", which grants sweeping regulatory power to the British government, including the ability to block websites and punish consumers and companies who are found to violate copyright law.
The Federal Appeals Court decision calls into question the reach of the FCC, and raises questions about the future of a number of policy plans for the Obama Administration, including the National Broadband Plan. Austin Schlick writes on the broadband plan's official blog that several recommendations from the plan may be impacted, including "supporting robust use of broadband by small businesses to drive productivity, growth and ongoing innovation; lowering barriers that hinder broadband deployment; strengthening public safety communications; cybersecurity; consumer protection, including transparency and disclosure; and consumer privacy."
The British bill has seen widespread opposition from numerous sectors, including Facebook, Google, and Yahoo, and some are contending that it will have a chilling effect on startups in the UK.
Both of these decisions point to the high stakes involved with securing "net neutrality" - both for consumers and businesses alike. Although there is by no means unanimity on what, if any, role governments should have in regulating technology ideas and infrastructure, few would disagree that startups benefit from a climate that fosters technological and business innovation. Furthermore, all businesses, not merely ones in the technology sector, are becoming dependent on quick access to the Internet for their ability to develop, deliver and distribute their services to customers.
Fred Wilson argues in a post on his blog today that perhaps it is time to reframe the terms of the debate, moving away from the phrase "net neutrality" and instead to argue on behalf of "internet freedom." He writes "Internet Freedom is about sustaining the era of permissionless innovation that has characterized the first fifteen years of the commercial Internet in this country and brought us thousands of new big profitable companies, millions of jobs, and a vast array of new services and devices that have changed our lives and made them better."
As courts, legislatures, and agencies try to create policies around digital technologies, how will new startups be effected?