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AT&T Merger Contains First Net Neutrality Guidelines

The AT&T/BellSouth merger agreement contains an unprecedented network neutrality provision that could form the basis of future policy and regulations, according to a Columbia University law professor.

The language in AT&T's commitment to the Federal Communications Commission marks a significant step forward in defining the issue, according to Timothy Wu, a law professor specializing in technology and telecommunications.

"As the first working rule, it may serve as a model and an experiment for what follows, which is why it merits attention," Wu, co-author of Who Controls the Internet? (Oxford University Press, 2006) and a charter member of, wrote in his analysis. "At a level of theory, the language in the agreement is premised on a belief in the merits of a neutral network, and in particular its cultural, political, and economic benefits. The preservation of an open communications network as a catalyst for these sectors, without unfairly restricting AT&T's business, appears to be the motivating force behind the agreed-upon language."

Proponents of network neutrality pushed last year for legislation that would guarantee that telecommunications and cable companies would treat Internet data equally, regardless of its source. In other words, data from bloggers and individuals would move just as quickly as data from major corporations, allowing users to access content just as easily from one source as another. Though bills to that effect failed, the issue managed to tie up an overhaul of federal telecommunications laws.

Critics of network neutrality argue that the Internet should be an unregulated free marketplace. They joined forces through a group called Hands Off The Internet, which included AT&T and BellSouth. The group argued that, by charging some companies more for an "Internet fast lane," providers could raise money needed to expand and upgrade services. It pointed out that neutrality proponents include major Internet companies like Google, which benefit from the current system. Hands Off The Internet, backed in part by technology hardware companies, ceased to publicize new developments after Congress recessed in late October.

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