Net Neutrality Bill on Comeback Trail?

Published June 1, 2009

The Democratic majority in Congress has a lot on its plate this year, dealing with the Obama administration’s ambitious domestic agenda. But ensconcing into law the concept of “net neutrality” continues to percolate in the background, and technology experts hope it stays on the back burner.

“Obviously, there is a crush of very high priorities,” said Scott Cleland, president of Precursor LLC in McLean, Virginia and chairman of He said he doubts legislation will move beyond the committee level this year. “Net neutrality is a solution in search of a problem,” he said.

Traffic Management Mandate
Net neutrality would prohibit Internet service providers (ISPs) from managing Web traffic based on customers’ use of their broadband connections. Someone using bandwidth-hogging “bit torrent” services to share huge files could not have their service slowed or stopped to allow the quick flow of low-bandwidth actions such as sending a basic email or surfing the Web.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) has introduced legislation in the previous two congressional sessions to force ISPs to institute that policy.

Industry Resistance
The federal stimulus bill President Barack Obama signed earlier this year might establish net neutrality through the back door. The $7.2 billion set aside for broadband projects requires any company accepting the money to adhere to net neutrality rules.

“Fewer companies will be interested in applying if those strings are attached,” Cleland said. “Those strings represent real costs and limitations on how they run their businesses.”

In addition, the big ISPs have seen how the banking industry and General Motors lost much of their autonomy by partnering with the federal government.

“Everyone in the corporate world is aware of the new risk of government involvement in their business,” Cleland said. “Companies are going to be reticent to agree to these strings unless they absolutely need the money.”

Governments Change
Robert Blackwell, CEO of Electronic Knowledge Interchange in Chicago, said he’s wary of government bureaucrats making decisions about broadband management best left to the market.

“There are a lot of very bright people who are part of this administration,” Blackwell said. “But what happens down the road when a new administration comes in that doesn’t know anything about technology?”

James G. Lakely ([email protected]) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Infotech & Telecom News.