Battle over net neutrality ready to rock

Should the Internet remain neutral? A battle is brewing between carriers and content providers. Congress is looking into what's being billed as the next big battle for the Net.

The Senate Commerce Committee has scheduled a full committee hearing on net neutrality for Feb. 7. It will be webcast live. Net neutrality is an issue that's not on most people's radar but it's an issue that's going to be critically important, as the Senate's interest shows. Net neutrality has been covered in depth at the Free Government Information blog.

[W]hat will happen if the Internet is no longer a neutral "pipe" that treats all bits equally? What happens if phone companies, cable companies, and other network service providers begin to give priority and higher bandwidth and speed to some services, some sites, and some information and, at the same time, reduce the bandwidth and speed of access to other sites, other content?

Recent events and statements by the key players show that is exactly what they want to happen. For example, Ed Whitacre, the CEO of the large telephone company, SBC, caused a stir last November when he said that companies (such as Google and Yahoo) that make money using SBC's broadband connections should pay him.

"How do you think they're going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that."

FGI points to a blog posting by Jeff Pulver, "What should government's role be in ensuring an Open Internet?" in which he says (in bold): There is no longer any doubt in my mind that we are witnessing the emergence of the new battle for control over the Internet and communications.

I have some concerns that we might see the emergence of two Internets - one an ever-evolving and progressing privately-controlled Internet, and the other an increasingly dilapidated publicly-accessible Internet with minimal quality and capacity. Will the emergence of a government supported Internet onramp ensure a quality public Internet or undermine the efforts of private enterprise? Will the public Internet be a dirt road (albeit free), while the privately-controlled Internet will be of top-quality but will not allow users access to the full-range of content and applications that the Internet could offer?

How do we maintain the quality of a public road? Does it simply degenerate into a neglected back road traveled by only the disenfranchised members of the community? And does the establishment of the public road undermine private efforts to build the best, next-generation broadband networks? Would we relive the fiascos experienced by the public projects of failed Communist states, in which they built publicly-owned facilities without any financial incentive and which ultimately led to their deterioration and an inability to meet the development and progress of an enlightened capitalist economy? It is times like this that I look around for my time machine, my crystal ball, my ability to see the alternate futures. I still sense that much good can come from publicly-supported broadband networks, particularly where industry has not stepped up to the plate. At a minimum, I think we could use some government support to build out private, but open networks.

And in the Times, Randall Stross shows just how close we are to a Balkanized net, where only certain content is available by certain providers, or for the universal access the net promises, the moral equivalent of Standard Oil must be created:

Woe to us all if the Internet's content is limited by the companies who also handle the plumbing. "The Future of Ideas," by Lawrence Lessig (Random House, 2001), shows how innovation and creativity associated with the Internet are the byproducts of its openness, its role as a commons that is accessible, by design, to all. Professor Lessig, who teaches law at Stanford, said last week that even now, broadband carriers have failed to demonstrate their commitment to the principle of network neutrality. "They've fought it at each stage," he said, "and they have never embraced the principle."

An illustration of his point popped up the same day. In an interview, William L. Smith, the chief technology officer at BellSouth, described to me his company's trial offering in West Palm Beach, Fla., last year of a speedy download service for Movielink content. When asked whether BellSouth would offer its special service on an exclusive basis to a particular content site and agree to exclude the sponsor's rivals, he did not hesitate in treating the question as a matter of simply settling on the right price. The N.F.L. and Nascar strike exclusive distribution deals, he said. Why not network carriers?

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