Net Neutrality, One More Time

After being off the front burner for a while the issue of ‘Net Neutrality has once again been placed front and center. Not much has changed since the last time the issue was on the table; the same arguments are being implemented and the same examples are being forwarded. Net Neutrality is not a cut-and-dry if-then issue, and unfortunately parties on both sides are doing more to muddy the waters than to offer the clarity which is needed.

Advocates of Net Neutrality contend that without some amount of government involvement the Internet, the bastion of free information and expression, will be usurped by the telecoms and ISPs. The owners of the pipes will become gatekeepers, pushing content they own or from companies willing (or forced) to pay the price. In this scenario free access to the Internet’s contents will be constricted and the innovation which created the Internet and which has kept it viable will diminish. Those in favor of Net Neutrality are asking the government to keep the telecoms and ISPs in check.

Opponents of Net Neutrality contend that they have spent fortunes building out their networks and must be given the opportunity to recoup these costs, if need be from content providers utilizing the networks or from heavy users whose large file transfers can choke the network. As both the number of users and the size of files moving on the Internet grow, the need to regulate traffic and expand network infrastructure will only increase. Government interference will result in financial hardships for the providers and networks which clog or crash on the users.

Though some try to paint it as such, Net Neutrality is not a David (Internet users) against Goliath (the Telcos and ISPs) scenario. Both sides of the issue have large corporations and regular users in their stables. The heavy hitters lobbying against Net Neutrality include telecom companies AT&T and Verizon, the ISP Comcast, and the International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications Industry (CTIA). Swinging from the other side of the fence are Google, Yahoo!, eBay, and Amazon.com as well as the ACLU. Opponents and proponents also make use of coalitions with names such as SaveTheInternet.com, Open Internet Coalition, Progress and Freedom Foundation, and Hands Off the Internet.

Now, due largely to recent developments, all the rhetoric is back on the table.

A few months back Comcast confessed, after some denial, to slowing (or altogether blocking) some of the traffic on their network. Comcast defends itself by saying that its actions were necessary to maintain quality of service for their customers. (It was not the quality of service of those who paid for unlimited bandwidth they were thinking of.) It was not blocking traffic, but managing its network. The company still denies targeting specific types of files or applications (such as BitTorrent). Until the Comcast activity came to light ISPs blocking content was more or less a hypothetical situation, now Net Neutrality advocates are pointing to Comcast as proof of their argument. One advocate now taking action is Representative Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts.

Two years ago, as ranking minority member on the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Markey added Net Neutrality amendments to a telecom bill going before Congress. The amendments, and the bill to which they were attached, failed to gain approval. Now, as chairman of the Telecommunications and Internet subcommittee, Markey is making good on his promise to propose the issue once again. On February 13, Markey put forward a bill (the Internet Freedom Preservation Act) which would, “amend the Communications Act of 1934 to ensure net neutrality.”

In a somewhat interesting twist, the bill is co-sponsored by Chip Pickering, a Republican from Mississippi, one of Markey’s opponents the last time he proposed similar legislation. This has lead some, such as Roy Mark of eWeek, to suggest that the bill, rather than making use of the increased power of its sponsor, is being proposed as ‘Net Neutrality Lite’. To this Alex Winogradoff, a Research VP at Gartner adds, “While Markey’s objective is laudable, the likely result, were this act to be approved, would have the opposite effect – dampening and restricting the freedom of the Internet.”

As the battle over the streaming superhighway of the broadband pipes continues, confusion still reins.

Further Reading:

 

More information, resources, and access to up-to-date news is available in the Net Neutrality section of Northern Light’s Market Intelligence Wiki.

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