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.
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.”