January 10, 2007
Net Neutrality Legislation Proposed Early on the Floor of the New Senate

Among all the big CES news this week, Tuesday also launched another major story: a push forward for net neutrality by the new Congress that just convened.

In the senate, a discussion has started about renewing talks of net neutrality, as a bipartisan effort to once again push for neutrality was introduced. Well, bipartisan in the fact that it was introduced by a Democrat and Republican senator, Olympia Snowe of Maine (Republican) and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota (Democrat). The senators who are co-sponsoring the legislation are all Democrats, including such heavy-hitters as John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama.

The argument centers on whether Internet service providers should have the option to charge higher fees for some sites as compared to others or privilege the connection speeds for certain sites. On the service providers' side, the argument against net neutrality is that some sites pull considerably more bandwidth for the type of data they contain, particularly video sites, while net neutrality would keep them from charging those groups higher fees for faster data speeds.

The debate has been over whether a lack of such neutrality would lead to discrimination in choosing one content provider over another, with proponents of net neutrality bringing up the potential drawbacks for the consumer who would be caught in the crossfire.

From a libertarian perspective, the whole debate produces an interesting dilemma. For service providers, laissez-faire logic says that government should stay out and that these groups should be able to make their own decisions regarding what to charge and what sites to privilege. However, another angle of libertarianism says that, in order to provide a free market for content providers on the Web, there has to be a neutral market in place. In this case, the bottom of the question is how to classify Internet service providers and their rights as compared to the rights of online businesses.

Called the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, the bill would prohibit activities that, as Sen. Dorgan said in a statement yesterday that has been quoted various places, would "fundamentally change the way the Internet has operated and threatens to derail the democratic nature of the Internet."

Snowe calls the very idea of charging content providers a "toll road" for the Internet, as others have labeled such activities in the past, and Dorgan was quoted as saying, "The Internet became a robust engine of economic development by enabling anyone with a good idea to connect to consumers and compete on a level playing field. The marketplace picked winners and losers, not some central gatekeeper. That freedom-the very core of what makes the Internet what it is today - must be preserved."

Of course, the service providers are opposed to the toll road spin, giving it their own angle. Ira Teinowitz with TelevisionWeek quotes Verizon's Peter Davidson as saying, "Net Neutrality--better named Net Regulation--is trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist."

Anne Broache with CNET summarizes the argument succinctly:

That drove Internet companies, consumer groups and a number of high-profile backers--ranging from actress Alyssa Milano to Vint Cerf, one of the Net's technical pioneers--to mount grassroots campaigns calling for federal regulations barring such a practice. They contend that any prioritization threatens the freedoms that Internet users have always enjoyed. Opponents of such regulations have argued that there's no evidence of a discrimination problem and that new rules would stifle innovation.

The AT&T/BellSouth merger at the end of 2006 raised some of these debates. As I wrote then, there was some debate as to whether the provisions to ensure Net Neutrality for a certain time period was a victory or not, or even whether it would be enforced.

Cynthia Brumfield at IP & Democracy writes, "It's possible that Congressional strategists decided to strike while the iron is hot, riding the momentum of AT&T's agreement to abide by net neutrality requirements."

Back in July, I wrote:

The debate right now is, one the one side, that net neutrality is essential to allow everyone equal access to Internet content, and, on the other side, that service providers need to be able to get extra compensation for expenses required in updating lines for increased video content, etc., and that they should be able to work out deals and charge sites for preferential treatment. Just as we have a strong movement toward equal access online, these proposals to eliminate net neutrality--along with moves toward online gated content--damages the ability of consumers to find products. And any move that ultimately takes power away from consumers is, to me, detrimental to convergence culture.

In my first piece on net neutrality back in June, I wrote, "When something termed 'deregulation' instead leads to barriers for a free market, we get into dangerous territory."