The Net Neutrality Debate Continues

The Net Neutrality movement seeks government safeguards to ensure that broadband providers treat all lawful traffic across their networks identically. But to achieve Net Neutrality, a coalition of consumers and

November 3, 2006

7 Min Read
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Many years ago, when I was working for one of the first successful for-pay Internet publishing ventures, one of our VIP users was having a problem reliably connecting to and downloading content from our site. From the user's perspective, we were at fault; our content wasn't getting to him as fast as he had come to expect. I investigated and found that packets were getting lost on the last leg of their journey. The user's ISP was at fault, but the user wanted us to handle the problem--he was, after all, paying for the content. I made some calls on the user's behalf and eventually the problem was solved. The difficulty we uncovered was caused by a bad router. But what if the ISP had been degrading our packets because we were offering a product that competed with its own? What would stop the ISP from doing that?

This was my first exposure to the idea that content providers and users both have little control over how their packets travel across the Internet. In the early days of the Internet, it was thought of as a shared resource that treated one packet just like another. The concept that packets ought to be treated identically regardless of their source or destination is the essence of Net Neutrality, and a movement has arisen to codify the concept into law. Other ideas--such as the ability of users to use their bandwidth as they choose over as many devices as they wish--have been subsumed under the umbrella of Net Neutrality.What does Net Neutrality mean to you and your customers? If you work for a company that's in the business of streaming audio or video content, your typical customer has a high-speed broadband account through a phone or cable provider. These providers, however, may deliver the same type of content as you do and may be looking to exploit any edge to improve the bottom line. A competitor might assign a higher priority to packets from its streaming service, for instance, thus giving it a performance edge. It might attempt to charge your company fees to raise your performance. In the worst case, their behavior is monopolistic, and in the best case, they've created a toll road on the information superhighway.

There is much ignorance in the user community regarding Net Neutrality and, unfortunately, without much education, it'll be up to the big players in the content-delivery arena--Amazon, eBay, Google and Microsoft--to ensure users are given unfettered access to their products. These companies have begun the push to make Net Neutrality guarantees become law. Google, for example, has a Web page ( explaining Net Neutrality and guiding users to resources in support of it. Meg Whitman, eBay's CEO, sent an e-mail asking users to support a Net Neutrality amendment to an existing telecom bill, the COPE (Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement) Act.

Laws Pending

U.S. elected officials have started considering ways to regulate how the Internet functions, with an eye toward maintaining many of the freedoms in place. Two bills have been introduced this year dealing with Net Neutrality, one in each chamber of Congress. The Net Neutrality Act of 2006 (HR 5273) was introduced by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) on May 2. This legislation offers protections similar to those specified in the amendment to the COPE Act. After explaining the importance of maintaining the Internet's free nature, this short bill specifies limitations on the behavior of broadband providers, exclusions to the limitations and means for the FCC to enforce the resulting law. Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) introduced a bill offering similar protections, the Internet Freedom Preservation Act (S 2917), on May 19.

The Net Neutrality Act lays out a strategy with eight safeguards. These require broadband providers to allow users to access any lawful content on the Internet; not impair or degrade the ability of users to access content on the Internet from whatever devices they wish; provide users with clearly written terms of service; offer service to whomever makes a request; not discriminate quality of service in favor of itself; provide similar quality of service to competitors' products on their network; provide the same level of service regardless of content source to users with enhanced access; and not create features attempting to thwart these provisions.With passage of the Net Neutrality Act, competitive environments for several emerging technologies would be supported. The second provision, for instance, appears to protect the user's ability to install many network devices on their home network. A broadband company would be required to support competing companies' VoIP devices even if the broadband company also offers VoIP devices.

The act includes exclusions to the safeguards listed above, however. Broadband service providers would still be able to offer parental controls, varying service levels with differing bandwidth, network security mechanisms and premium services that a subscriber may opt out of.

The average Internet user is probably unaware of these issues, as revealed by a recent press release of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. The release--"Bipartisan Poll Shows the Majority of Americans Favor Video Choice Over Onerous Net Neutrality Regulations"--claims the results of a recent poll reveal the public is against Net Neutrality and for something called "video choice." The title and conclusion reached in the press release is dubious: Only 5 percent of respondents even knew of Net Neutrality.

Future Scenario

If the public were informed and generally understood the issues at stake with Net Neutrality, perhaps we'd see a battle brewing over who owns the Internet. As it stands, the broadband providers will probably be able to stop any legislation passed that favors Net Neutrality. Then content providers will be forced to negotiate agreements with broadband providers so that their content delivery remains unimpaired. Many small companies, video blogs, nonprofits and the like, unable to afford these agreements, will be driven to the Internet's second tier, a slow sluggish environment average users will hesitate to accept.The impact of not having Net Neutrality safeguards could spread beyond content providers. As communication becomes higher-bandwidth, the enterprise could be exposed to more performance problems with clients and employees connecting through a wide variety of providers. Although some performance issues exist now as the result of technology and bandwidth limitations, an environment in which broadband providers encourage the use of their own branded services through traffic prioritization may reduce the usability of these technologies.

There are also larger issues at play that the public has not grasped. As vital as the Internet has become in the realm of commerce, we also must consider its increasing importance as a public square, for debate, both public and private. Our basic rights include free speech and association. Much civic activity, such as information from government to the individual and even voting, now takes place or is proposed to take place over the Internet. As these rights and activities are increasingly exercised across the Internet, the government must be vigilant to ensure that they are not subject to discriminatory actions. n

Edward Hand is an independent software consultant in Madison, Wis. He has more than 15 years' experience as an it analyst, developer and project manager. Write to him at [email protected].

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