Net Neutrality Debate Remains Contentious

The haggling over whether Internet service providers should be able to charge more money for some traffic, or whether the law should mandate equal access, is increasingly contentious. Here's a guide to the players.

K.C. Jones, Contributor

March 16, 2007

9 Min Read

Net neutrality is so contentious that many people debating it cannot even agree on a definition. Traditional allies and foes have rearranged themselves to form strange new alliances and divisions. Even the founders of the Internet and the World Wide Web -- including some who worked alongside each other -- are at odds over how to move forward.

The Gun Owners of America and the Christian Coalition have lined up next to MoveOn, the American Civil Liberties Union and Democratic presidential candidates to support what they describe as a federal anti-discrimination measure. Telecommunications and cable companies competing for Internet subscribers are on the other team in the fight against net neutrality, which they argue is a biased and unclear term for laws that would stifle innovation.

Columbia University Law Professor Timothy Wu is widely credited with coining the term net neutrality in a paper he published in 2002. He describes it as a network design issue based on the idea that "information networks are often more valuable when they are less specialized -- when they are a platform for multiple uses, present and future."

"A useful way to understand this principle is to look at other networks, like the electric grid, which are implicitly built on a neutrality theory," Wu explains on a site he created to explain the concept. "The general purpose and neutral nature of the electric grid is one of the things that make it extremely useful. The electric grid does not care if you plug in a toaster, an iron, or a computer. Consequently, it has survived and supported giant waves of innovation in the appliance market. The electric grid worked for the radios of the 1930s works for the flat screen TVs of the 2000s. For that reason the electric grid is a model of a neutral, innovation-driving network."

The Internet now allows information to move in data packets through networks of computers and routers on a "best efforts basis." In other words, the system routes packets with little regard for what type of information or applications they contain or who created them.

Proponents of net neutrality argue that cable and telecommunications form a duopoly that threatens the current system. They say that, without some type of anti-discrimination law or standards, cable and telecommunications companies could control users' access by blocking content from competitors, favoring certain applications, charging higher rates to deliver information into people's homes and offices and failing to inform people of their capacity.

Since cable companies act both as Internet service providers and content creators, net neutrality proponents argue that they have a financial interest in prioritizing their own content and threatening online speech and democracy. Likewise, telecommunications companies acting as service providers could degrade Voice over Internet Protocol, which in many cases allows people to make phone calls cheaper over the Internet than over traditional phone lines.

Some telecommunications executives have argued that they should be able to prioritize information from sources paying higher fees or serving higher purposes. A prioritized system, which would create an Internet fast lane for higher-paying content providers, would help fund network improvements, according to Internet service providers.

Net neutrality opponents, including President Bill Clinton's former press secretary Mike McCurry, also argue that Internet service providers should be able to direct heavy traffic and screen out some material, like viruses and spam. They say some content, like medical information, is more important -- and therefore should take priority over -- other information. They argue that innovative applications in medicine and other fields will spring from improved services levels guaranteed through higher premiums and government regulation would kill the freedom that has allowed the Internet to flourish.

Both sides look to the origins of the Internet and its founders to support their points. In a piece published in The Washington Post, Michael Katz, an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and David Farber, a computer science and public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University, put it this way:

"No one would propose that the US Postal Service not be permitted to offer Express Mail because a "fast lane" mail service is "undemocratic," yet some current proposals would do exactly this for Internet services," they Katx and Farber wrote. "For this reason, foreclosing the emergence of alternative pricing regimes for innovative services would be ill advised."

Katz and Farber met with other computer science, economics and law experts at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania and Carnegie-Mellon University, to conduct an interdisciplinary analysis of network neutrality. They concluded that federal agencies should enforce antitrust laws to address problems after they arise.

In a speech at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., earlier this year, IP protocol inventor Robert Kahn said net neutrality is a slogan for a mandate that would prevent innovation on the networks. He and other engineers argue that legislation could restrict developments that would improve data delivery and alleviate traffic burdens.

Net elder-statesman Vinton Cerf submitted written comments on net neutrality to Congress last year, when he was unable to attend a hearing while he and Kahn received the Presidential Medal of Freedom that day for creating the Internet protocol.

"The remarkable social impact and economic success of the Internet is in many ways directly attributable to the architectural characteristics that were part of its design," he wrote. "The Internet was designed with no gatekeepers over new content or services. The Internet is based on a layered, end-to-end model that allows people at each level of the network to innovate free of any central control. By placing intelligence at the edges rather than control in the middle of the network, the Internet has created a platform for innovation. This has led to an explosion of offerings -- from VOIP to 802.11x wi-fi to blogging -- that might never have evolved had central control of the network been required by design.

"Many people will have little or no choice among broadband operators for the foreseeable future, implying that such operators will have the power to exercise a great deal of control over any applications placed on the network," he continued. "As we move to a broadband environment and eliminate century-old non-discrimination requirements, a lightweight but enforceable neutrality rule is needed to ensure that the Internet continues to thrive. Telephone companies cannot tell consumers who they can call; network operators should not dictate what people can do online."

Google joins Yahoo!, eBay, and World Wide Web inventor Sir Timothy Berners-Lee in promoting network neutrality.

The Dynamic Platform Standards Project proposes that Congress clarify the meaning of offering Internet connectivity and set up rules for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to enforce them.

"We recommend the prosecution of distorted offerings of Internet connectivity as "deceptive practice," the group explains in a petition." We believe the gut feeling -- that one cannot discriminate and still call the service "Internet" -- is founded in reality. The very term "Internet" suggests that participants assume their traffic will be passed without interference; the concept is backed up by over thirty years of standards and ISP behavior."

The group agrees with Cerf, as well as telecommunications and cable companies, in stating that Congress should be cautious about regulating something that works so well.

Measures legislating net neutrality died in Congress last year after heated debate, but proponents managed to stall an entire communications overhaul by tying a net neutrality amendment to the bill. U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who championed the cause, now heads the House committee in charge of the Internet. That committee has begun holding a series of hearings on the digital future of America.

Democrats, who supported net neutrality in greater numbers than Republicans did, increased their power during the November elections. They have teamed up with Republicans to reintroduce net neutrality legislation.

In the meantime, both sides are lobbying members of Congress and both sides have announced studies that purport to show their recommendations would promote innovation, while the other side's would stifle it.

Researchers at the University of Florida's department of decision and information sciences analyzed the issue using game theory. The researchers found that improving the infrastructure would reduce the need to pay for preferential treatment but the incentive for broadband service providers to expand and upgrade would decline if net neutrality ended. Japan and Korea have net neutrality, greater competition among broadband providers, and higher broadband speeds, than the United States, they said

The Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies announced recently that their model, rooted in "transaction cost" economics, found that network neutrality would prevent cost-saving measures for services like streaming video. They said it could also shift sales from independent content providers to the broadband network's content affiliate, defeating the purpose of anti-competitive rules.

"The growing capacity demands of video on the Internet, coupled with the pernicious increase of spam and viruses, threaten an on-line traffic jam," Phoenix Center President Lawrence Spiwak said. "To maximize bandwidth, operators need the flexibility to meet the different needs with different types of services, but many network neutrality proposals mandate rigidity. Such flexibility will likely be crucial for mobile broadband content, where content and applications may need to be customized for particular customer equipment, carriers, and service packages."

The FTC recently began workshops on the issue and commissioners have pointed out just how polarized the arguments have been. They are suggesting compromise. One commissioner suggested using language in the AT&T BellSouth merger agreement as a starting point. It states that the companies will continue providing the same level of support in operating the core, or backbone, of the Internet and maintain a neutral network and neutral routing in its wireline broadband Internet access service. The agreement lasts for two years or until Congress passes legislation on network neutrality.

Lower levels of government are also jumping into the fray. Last month, Maryland lawmakers introduced legislation that would require broadband providers to report on their offerings. The bill aims to protect net neutrality but could stall because of arguments over whether it threatens protections on federal commerce, according to an article in the National Journal.

New York City Council Member Gale Brewer, who heads a local government technology committee, introduced a resolution supporting federal net neutrality legislation. In statements supporting net neutrality as the best path for preserving an affordable, accessible and free Internet, Brewer warned that extra charges could destroy it. She also summed up the one point on which both sides agree: "Competition to provide the best and fastest access to the Internet helps everyone."

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