Push for Net Neutrality Expected this Year

Published February 1, 2009

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) is expected to push legislation this year barring Internet providers from blocking Web content, setting up a renewed battle over so-called network neutrality.

Net neutrality is loosely defined as prohibiting discrimination of content or an application regardless of the time of day or user. However, the definition is one of the problems making it difficult, if not impossible, to legislate, according to policy experts.

With Dorgan expected to introduce legislation similar to bills he and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) have introduced in each of the past two sessions of Congress, net neutrality was a hot telecom topic again in the weeks leading up to the opening of the new Congress.

Google Move Sparks Debate

Interest in the issue was heightened as Internet search company Google approached major cable and phone companies about placing company servers directly within the network of the service providers—a concept known as edge caching, which would improve Google’s content delivery speeds. Google had presented itself as a champion of net neutrality in the past and argued its stance hadn’t changed, claiming edge caching is a separate issue.

Others disagree, but therein lies part of the problem, policy experts say. With no clear definition of net neutrality in the marketplace, it can’t be defined via legislation.

“Net neutrality has been a very fluid concept for years, ill-defined by even its most ardent supporters,” said Barbara Esbin, senior fellow and director of the Center for Communications and Competition Policy at the Progress and Freedom Foundation in Washington, DC. “Laws, however, depend upon clearly defined boundaries, and this is one reason that opponents of net neutrality legislation have been able to forestall further action.”

Shifting Definitions, Realities

While some network neutrality proponents would allow some exceptions for network management, that raises the question of what should qualify for an exception—and if those exceptions should be defined in legislation.

Esbin explained how the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is beginning to form its own definition of net neutrality—which has already affected the practices of broadband providers, such as Comcast.

“There are many indications that proposed net neutrality legislation this year could very likely take the FCC’s ‘Internet Policy Statement’ as a starting point,” Esbin said. “The Internet Policy Statement articulated ‘four freedoms,’ or entitlements, of Internet access. It also stated that these entitlements would be subject to ‘reasonable network management.’

“The FCC’s order sanctioning Comcast for interfering with [its customers’] use of peer-to-peer applications foreshadowed a fifth ‘non-discrimination’ principle: Network management techniques must not discriminate on the basis of applications or protocols,” Esbin said. “One would expect legislation that either codifies these ‘principles’ or simply gives the FCC explicit statutory authority to adopt its principles into enforceable rules.”

Awaiting Legislation

Vince Vasquez, senior policy analyst with the San Diego Institute for Policy Research, said Dorgan’s net neutrality legislation has the potential to do great harm to consumers.

“If Senator Dorgan gets his way, the control of [broadband] will be wrestled from consumers and thrust into the hands of federal bureaucrats, who would set price controls that would restrict the quality and quantity of Internet access,” Vasquez said.

“By restricting ISPs to government-endorsed business models—and employing bureaucrats to monitor and control the traffic lanes—Dorgan threatens to undermine the market forces that have served consumers so well, and discourage future investment,” Vasquez said. “With fewer incentives for ISPs to adopt new technologies and build more lanes for high-speed Internet access, online traffic will crowd up onto over-worked infrastructure, slowing and degrading the user experience of everyone.

“We’ve come too far as a state to revert back to our 56K days, and the future of the Internet is too important to be held up by a spat between business partners that should be resolved privately, like all commercial transactions,” Vasquez said.

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.