Consumer advocates push for network neutrality

Consumer groups call on Congress to create a network neutrality law.

Would Internet users want to pay US$0.05 every time they visit, or any other Web site? That's one possibility if the U.S. Congress fails to include strong "network neutrality" rules as it debates a comprehensive telecom reform bill, a group of open Internet advocates said Friday.

A more likely possibility: Broadband providers such as Verizon Communications and Comcast block access to services such as competing VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) services or video downloads, said panelists at an open Internet forum for congressional staffers in Washington, D.C.

While charging users a fee to visit some Web sites may be an unlikely scenario, large broadband providers could slow down access to Web sites or services with which they have no distribution agreements, said members of consumer groups and two consumer-focused technology companies.

The concept of net neutrality was endorsed by Michael Powell, then chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in February 2004, and consumer advocates had been pushing the idea even before then. Although the FCC didn't formalize Powell's ideas into rules, the former chairman suggested that Internet users had the freedom to access content of their choice, attach devices of their choice, and run applications of their choice.

But two recent decisions, one by the FCC and one by the U.S. Supreme Court, raise questions about the consumer rights Powell advocated, said participants in the Friday forum. In June, the court ruled that cable companies offering broadband access do not have to open their high-speed lines to competitors, and in August, the FCC followed suit by ruling that DSL (digital subscriber line) providers no longer have to share their networks with competitors.

The two rulings set the stage for closed broadband networks where the providers set the rules, said speakers at the Friday forum.

Without net neutrality rules, the concept of an open, go-where-you-want Internet is at risk, said representatives of Vonage Holdings and TiVO. "Net neutrality means the Internet keeps working like the Internet works today," said Chris Murray, vice president of government affairs for Vonage, a VOIP provider. "It's about a larger issue than how much profit network operators can extract."

Broadband providers have opposed the call for net neutrality provisions in a new telecom reform package, saying they have no intention of blocking customer access to legal content and services. Providers would lose customers if they blocked customers from going to the Web sites they chose, Verizon and Comcast officials have argued in recent months.

The concept of net neutrality is likely to be one of the major debates as Congress looks to pass telecom reform legislation in 2006. Telecommunication carriers and cable operators, on opposite sides in parts of the telecom reform debate, have both said a net neutrality law would be a "solution in search of a problem."

"The question becomes, when we start implementing those either as legislation or enforcement, we start getting into some real trouble," Peter Davidson, Verizon's vice president of federal government relations, said during a telecom reform debate in November. "We start walking down the path of regulating the Internet real quickly, if we do it in the wrong way."

A net neutrality law could also limit broadband providers' ability to protect their networks from hackers or bandwidth hogs, say providers and their allies.

At the heart of the debate is an important property rights issue, and broadband network owners should be able to enter into contracts with some content providers, said Randy May, a senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank. Broadband providers need to have ways to recoup the cost of building next-generation networks, he said during another telecom forum Thursday.

"We're talking about the owners of these networks in a competitive environment," May said. "In my view, it's important not to dictate to the owners of the networks that they cannot provide any kind of preference to those people who they want to enter into relationships with."

So far, the net neutrality debate hasn't focused on making Internet users to pay per Web site visit, but that possibility did come up during Friday's forum. Some members of the Electronic Retailing Association don't understand why a net neutrality is needed when they're used to paying to advertise products on cable television, said Barbara Tulipane, the group's president and chief executive officer.

Some people have questioned why Vonage should make money by riding free on a broadband network, Tulipane noted. AT&T chief executive officer Edward Whitacre, quoted by BusinessWeek recently, complained about potential competition from Vonage and other Internet companies, saying he wasn't going to let them "use my pipes free."

But the Internet is about more than just shopping, and the closed cable TV model could lead to per-Web site charges, Vonage's Murray told Tulipane. "That's not the Internet, and it's not what consumers expect," he said.

Despite broadband providers' assurances that they don't plan to block content, panelists said they've already seen it happen. Three small providers have tried to block Vonage VOIP service, Murray said, and in the early days of cable modem service, some cable television companies wrote clauses in their customer contracts allowing them to limit access to competing video services.

The market for innovative new Internet applications could dry up if broadband providers can block competing services, panelists said. An Internet where broadband providers limit access to content would be "bad for our economy and our democracy," said Gigi Sohn, president and cofounder of Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group focused on technology issues.

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