Net Neutrality Bill: Saving or Strangling the Internet?

Network neutrality — an issue that created a firestorm of controversy on Capitol Hill last year — will be on the congressional agenda again in 2007 thanks to Senators Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND).

Those legislators filed this week what they’re calling “The Internet Freedom Preservation Act,” which they say will ensure all content, applications and services are treated equally and fairly on the Internet by prohibiting broadband network operators from blocking, degrading or prioritizing service on their networks.

Rules to that effect were in place when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reclassified broadband services. However, the FCC neglected to adopt meaningful and enforceable safeguards, the pair said in a statement.

Supremes Side With FCC

Network neutrality has always existed in the dial-up world, where it was mandated by federal law, maintained Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America in Washington, D.C.

“When cable modem service came along, the FCC decided they were not going to apply those obligations of nondiscrimination to the broadband world,” Cooper told TechNewsWorld.

Although the lower courts found that the FCC had erred in their decisions, he explained, the Supreme Court in June 2005 sided with the federal agency.

After that decision, Cooper said, “we no longer had what was actually a hundred-year-old principle of nondiscrimination in communications.”

End of Digital Democracy

“What has made the Internet such a remarkable success is the ability of people everywhere to experience a world of their own choosing on their own terms, observed Sen. Snowe in a statement issued as the new net neutrality bill was filed. “This freedom has fostered an unprecedented exchange of information and ideas that has led to an explosion in consumer choice, the creation of new businesses, and the spread of democratic ideals around the globe.

“Unfortunately, if Congress does not act, the age of digital democracy will come to an end,” she continued.

The Internet’s open architecture allows access to everyone equally, Sen. Dorgan explained in a statement.

“That access has been the cornerstone of the Internet’s growth so far, and it is vital to its continued success in the future,” he argued. “The Internet Freedom Preservation Act will ensure that the right to participate in the Internet remains free and available to all, so that the innovation, economic opportunities, and consumer benefits it makes possible will continue to flourish.”

Incentive for Innovation

If the vendor neutrality is violated systematically by those providing Internet service, there’s a potential for economic and political freedoms to be violated, contended David Weinberger, a fellow with the Harvard University Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

“As it stands right now, anybody can hook up to the Internet and have an equal shot at succeeding,” he told TechNewsWorld. “That’s an enormous incentive for innovation.

“If the people who carry the packets, carry the bits, get to prefer certain ideas, whether they’re political or economic, then a useful principle of democracy is weakened,” he added.

The proposed law requires broadband service providers to conduct their operations in a nondiscriminatory manner. It mandates that consumers must have the option of purchasing a stand-alone broadband connection that is not bundled with cable, phone or VoIP service.

Leave Well Enough Alone

There are those who believe, however, that the Internet is the way it is today because the government has kept its hands off it.

“We continue to believe that regulation of the Internet is unnecessary and will only stifle the investment, innovation and creativity that has been the hallmark of today’s dynamic broadband marketplace,” Brian Dietz, vice president of communications for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, said in a statement responding to the filing of the Snowe-Dorgan bill.

Still others maintained that all the fuss about net neutrality is diverting resources from the real issues facing broadband deployment in America.

“It’s unfortunate that at a time when the U.S. ranks 11th behind South Korea in broadband deployment, precious time is being spent on legislation that will impede, not increase America’s standing,” Tim McKone, AT&T executive vice president for federal relations, told TechNewsWorld.

“We continue to believe that net neutrality regulations are unwarranted and remain hopeful that lawmakers will pivot their efforts toward support of a national priority to deploy more advanced broadband to more Americans more quickly,” he concluded.

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