Supporting Network Neutrality

From blogs to online telephone services, the Internet has thrived as a platform of innovation.

And much of that success is due to the “hands-off approach” of network neutrality. The principle advocates allowing consumers to reach the content they want without telecommunication and cable companies degrading service. The issue of network neutrality, however, has drawn rancor from those companies who provide the Internet’s pipeline infrastructure.

AT&T, Verizon and others contend if they spend billions of dollars to install the infrastructure, then bandwidth users such as Google and Microsoft should pay for the service.

Unfortunately, the costs could trickle down to the consumer. Network neutrality supporters fear the telecommunication and cable companies would try to institute a tiered-system of Internet access with special service to a few companies willing to pay fees to deliver content.

While the author recognizes telecommunication and cable companies need to charge fees for use of their pipeline, consumer choices must also be protected.

The author will aim to support network neutrality principles by looking at telecommunication deregulation, the shortcomings of the Telecommunication Act of 1996 and examples of discriminating practices by telecommunication and cable companies. Citing academic papers, online news articles and Web sites, this paper also addresses the movement of lawmakers to codify network neutrality principles.

In an effort to guarantee a free and competitive marketplace, the telecommunication and cable companies should charge  customers based on bandwidth usage. If a user spends two hours downloading content using a peer-to-peer file-sharing network, then he or she would pay more than a person simply answering e-mail.

Telecommunication and cable companies will then continue to see a return on their investment while keeping the network neutrality principle in tact. This will allow for the Internet to remain “an unrestricted free marketplace of ideas.”*

Supporting Network Neutrality (Hartl_essay.pdf) by Boris Hartl

* Source: Ben Scott, the policy director for the national reform media group, Free Press. “Testimony Regarding Network Neutrality Before the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.” May 25, 2006.

Reaction: The Forgotten Digital Divide

After reading Lisa Bistreich’s post concerning the digital divide affecting seniors, I was dismayed after learning about the obstacles Americans over age 65 face in the Information Age.

Seniors  may not have the basic computer skills to fully utilize the Internet. And I suspect they often feel too embarrassed to ask basic computer questions for fear of ridicule.

But the main obstacle, I think, would have to involve the physical use of computers. A large number of seniors experience problems reading text on a screen.

The personal computer can be complex to operate and the variety of programs and applications could prove overwhelming to someone who would like to simply communicate via e-mail, for example.

A study published in the peer-review journal, First Monday, stated:

“We have to keep in mind that the IT sector targets its products to the young and affluent, having in mind a trickle down model from early adopters to the broad public. Product developers do not care very much about the fact that the elderly cannot use tiny mobile telephones very well or that they are unable to decipher icons.”

So what’s the answer? I say designing computers that match the needs of the senior population by offering an ease-of-use computer. My search for such a model proved fruitless, leading me to believe the 34 percent of the 34.5 million Americans over age 65 use the Internet would probably fancy a computer geared toward them.

Reaction: Blog Phobia

I want to assure my classmate, Amanda, that blogs and the Internet will not render the existence of newspapers and magazines moot. I hate to use a cliche, but when faced with change, the key is to adapt. And that fact holds true for newspapers, magazines and other traditional media.

A good case study would be The Economist. The publication is enjoying a 107 percent increase in newsstand sales since 2000. The publication has maintained its relevance by focusing its efforts on adding new Web content. Or as my boss says, “by continually feeding the beast.”

John Micklethwait, The Economist’s editor-and-chief, told mediabistro.com his publication is adding more audio files. Publishing a full audio-version of the magazine online (that’s a great idea). Adding more blogs and correspondent diaries. Micklethwait is concerned about the effects the Internet will have on The Economist, which he strangely refers to as a “newspaper.”

“We remain provocatively paranoid about the Internet; you have to be thinking of ways in which you can deal with it. When I first came on I thought of the Internet as this sort of hurricane coming right towards us that had already hit newspapers and now would come to magazines, which were further ashore.”

“But now it seems to be sort of glancing magazines, rather than hitting directly. It’s not true for all magazines — there are some that have been hit quite badly — but the sort of thing that we’re doing at the moment seems to be helping us rather than hurting us, because it’s putting so much more information out there.”

On a smaller scale, The Daily Camera in Boulder, Colo., draws readers to its newspaper and Web content by offering readers a chance to offer comments on every published article. Business Blogger Dave Taylor wrote:

“I think that we in the blogosphere take the back-and-forth of comments for granted, but it’s definitely fresh and exciting on a newspaper site, and it’s frankly wonderful to see the community engage in an ongoing discussion and dialog on the news, be it local, national or global.”

Reaction: Access Issues With K-12 Technology

It took me a while to grasp Amanda Toler’s post on schools struggling to close the digital divide. North Carolina has done well in some respects as the state’s 117 public school systems have established technology staff development programs to train the more than 80,000 educators.

It seems North Carolina, however, would benefit by following Maine’s lead to establish a technology initiative providing laptop computers and wireless networks for students and their teachers. The Pine Tree State operated a four-year program that offered about 34,000 laptop computers to middle school students. And the state signed a four-year, $37 million lease with Apple in 2002.

North Carolina and other states face a similar problem: money. A sensible solution?  Private sector funding to narrow the digital divide in the K-12 classrooms.

Reaction: Social Networking Problems

Can you use Myspace.com and Facebook and still maintain some semblance of privacy?

Maybe. Joe Recomendes’ blog post details the privacy concerns hounding the aforementioned popular online social networking sites. He writes:

“Social networking sites grew very quickly, and without some examination about their use and the amount of information that is available on them; the consequences could be drastic.”

It seems people who maintain profiles on those sites also need to keep watch on how those site operators use information. For instance, Facebook began running targeted advertisements to the estimated 52 million site members. The ad-delivery system follows similar ones unleashed by myspace.com and Google’s AdSense.

Clint Boulton, a reporter with the technology publication eWeek, wrote:

“That new stage is powerful because now Facebook users can not only share information about Web sites and businesses with their friends but invite friends to weigh in on shopping and other activities on the Web. Yes, Facebook has become a sort of online mall, where users can shop with the input of their friends.”

The Facebook officials have not revealed what information is collected and what facts are shared with the advertisers. I wonder if the members of Facebook and Myspace.com will be willing to pay a monthly fee to ensure no targeted advertisements. Can people purchase their privacy?

Reaction to Food Marketing

My classmate Marcie Barnes wrote a well-researched post on her blog blasting the mislabeling of nutritional information. But it is still too easy for food manufacturers to successfully lobby and alter the information consumers need to purchase food.

I can remember one particular instance where the federal Food and Drug Administration changed the labeling requirement for Olestra — the zero calorie fat substitute developed by Procter & Gamble Co. found in certain snack foods (say potato chips) in the mid-1990s. The substance produced several nasty gastrointestinal side effects including abdominal cramping, loose stools and inhibiting the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K and other nutrients in some people.

The label read: “This Product Contains Olestra. Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools. Olestra inhibits the absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients. Vitamins A, D, E, and K have been added.”

In a September 1999 position paper written by Frances B. Smith, executive director of Stop Labeling Lies, she wrote:

“The alleged intent was to provide some consumers with information that would help them make a more informed decision about purchasing and using the product; it can be characterized as “Take care — you may be especially sensitive to the fact that Olestra is not digested by the body.”

In 2003, the FDA removed the warning because it “conducted a scientific review of several post-market studies submitted by P&G, as well as adverse event reports submitted by P&G and the Center for Science in the Public Interest. FDA concluded that the label statement was no longer warranted.”

The FDA did require manufacturers to continue adding Vitamins A, D, E, and K to such products.

Network Neutrality Web Resources

  • International Journal of Communication
    These interdisciplinary academic journals are peer reviewed and focus on communication. The Web site offers 34 scholarly journals exploring all facets of the complex issue of Network Neutrality.
  • Hands Off the Internet
    This group states its opposition to any government regulation of the Internet, and the majority of its membership are telecommunications companies and conservative lobby groups. The group’s main rival, SavetheInternet.com, claims Hands Off the Internet was specifically created to oppose any federal legislation supporting Network neutrality.
  • Save The Internet.com
    This is the home site of the SavetheInternet.com coalition which has more than a million members pushing for Congress to preserve Network Neutrality. The group receives no industry funding.
  • Chilling Effects Clearinghouse
    This organization is the result of a joint partnership between the Electronic Frontier Foundation and many leading universities including Harvard and Stanford. The group helps individuals to determine their rights on everything from copyright to content protection.
  • Telecommunications Act of 1996
    The FCC Web page is devoted to the landmark Telecommunications Act of 1996, which promoted deregulation of the telecommunication industry. With regards to the World Wide Web, the law guarantees equal treatment for everyone on the Internet.

Network Neutrality Fears

  • Federal legislators will fail to pass network neutrality legislation on broadband carriers
  • Without the legislation, Internet broadband providers will discriminate against “content and competing services” they don’t like.
  • Network Neutrality would stifle innovation.
  • Without Network Neutrality, consumers will lose all control to decide which applications and services will be available. Much like cable television providers, could Internet providers decide which sites and services would be available? And would that mean consumers would have to choose from a menu and pay for the plan they want?
  • A world without Network Neutrality could include oligopoly pricing, reduction in innovations and constraints on free speech.

Recommendations for Network Neutrality

  • Codify Network Neutrality principles allowing for broadband providers to create a tiered-style of pricing with the idea of equal access to each tier.
  • Prevent potential mergers between telecommunication companies that would lead to a monopoly on high-speed Internet service. If a merger is accepted, then require the parties share its cable network with all of its rivals.
  • Amend the 1996 Telecommunications Act to strengthen provisions relating to Internet usage.

Network Neutrality

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the World Wide Web, and Vinton Cerf, one of the Internet’s founding fathers, have stressed the Internet should be a neutral network free and open to all.

But what is Network Neutrality? It is “the principle that data packets on the Internet should be moved impartially, without regard to content, destination or source” and its supporters (including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and eBay) have mobilized. Why? To prevent telecommunication and cable providers such as AT&T and Verizon to tax content providers “and discriminate in favor of their own search engines, Internet phone services and storing videos while slowing or blocking their competitors.”

The telecommunication industry has argued no new laws are needed and the fees are required to deal with the increased demand for broadband service. The cable and telecommunication companies control 98 percent of the broadband access market and Network Neutrality advocates fear all Internet users could be affected. Telephone and cable companies want to build a tiered-system of Internet access with special service to a few companies willing to pay the fees to deliver content at fast speeds.

That would impact Web visitors in foreign countries such as Australia, for example, where 57 percent of all online visits were directed to Web sites in the United States and other parts of the world.

The idea of Network neutrality stems from the 1996 Telecommunications Act established by Congress “to ensure fundamental protections for the Internet as a non-discriminatory platform.” Congress insisted everyone on the Internet would experience equal treatment. The Federal Communication Commission ruled in 2005 Internet service provided through cable modems and digital subscriber lines are exempted from Network neutrality regulations.

The Digital Sandbox

Those providers choosing not to play along in the same digital sandbox with the telecommunication companies could only provide sites with relatively small bandwidth content and with much slower access for consumers. Imagine the average Web user sending family photos over e-mail over a slow connection. Bloggers could conceivably have to pay video and audio posting fees. Not a pretty scenario.

“Data Discrimination”

A coalition of university law schools and Network Neutrality supporters have filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission Nov. 1 charging Comcast with “most drastic example yet of data discrimination.” The Associated Press reported the company has blocked access to legal peer-to-peer file-sharing networks such as BiTorrent and Gnutella. The company responded its actions constituted “reasonable network management.”

On a federal level, intense lobbying efforts by the telecommunication industry slowed the Internet Freedom Act in January 2007 which would debate on network operators keep their networks open. Industry officials have countered with the argument that no specific laws are needed, and AT&T has publicly stated it would like to charge all Internet service providers fees based on bandwidth consumption.

Managing Network Traffic

At an October conference in California, James Ciccon, the senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs for AT&T, said Network Neutrality laws would hamper Web innovations. Telecommunication companies need to manage traffic on their networks and AT&T has seen its network traffic double since 2006.

In response, the company spent $19 billion to upgrade its network to handle the increased traffic.

“There is a notion out there that all bits are created equal,” he said. “But no bits are created equal. Some bits carry porn while others carry critical information like interactive video for heart surgery. Treating all bits the same is a costly and inefficient use of bandwidth.”

He also stated current antitrust laws would prevent telecommunication companies from acting as an Internet gatekeeper.

“And why would we want to do that? Selling service to customers is our business. The more traffic we have on our networks the more money we make. We just need to manage it carefully.”

But U.S. Sen Byron Dorgan told eWeek Verizon’s decision to reject text messaging from NARAL Pro-Choice America proved the United States needs a Network Neutrality law. The actions taken by the nation’s second largest wireless carrier promoted calls of censorship by NARAL and its supporters. Verizon changed its stance calling its decision an “incorrect interpretation” of company policy.

“Verizon may have reversed its initial decision in this case, and I’m glad they did. But the fact that they were willing and able to take their initial action is very troublesome,” Dorgan wrote in an e-mail to eWeek.

The European View

This is a complicated topic with many countries and groups neutral on neutrality. Many European companies have opposed Network Neutrality legislation because they are footing the bill for building ever faster broadband connections that others, like YouTube, MSN and PagesJaunes, are benefiting from.

The European Commission is offering a stance of minimal regulation. Two of the continent’s largest telecommunication companies, Deutsche Telekom and Telecom Italia, oppose Network Neutrality legislation. Deutsche Telekom, for instance, plans to spend $3.8 billion to build a fiber-optic network with 25 times faster than broadband service. Deutsche Telekom isn’t interested in sharing its network with competitors and is now considering a plan to charge companies wanting to deliver video to Internet-service customers.

Asian regulators are taking a wait-and-see approach toward passing any future legislation.  A good move, said Peter Waters, a communication lawyer and partner at law firm Gilbert+Tobin who spoke at the CommunicAsia Summit in June. Waters and others speaking at CommunicAsia in Singapore argued that carriers must be able to collect revenue for the different types of content that crosses their networks.

“We need to back off a bit,” Waters said. “Regulators should wait until a problem arises before stepping in to set new policies.”

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