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The Net Neutrality Debate Continues


Internet traffic has become a vital part of the commercial and civic life of the United States. The Net Neutrality movement seeks government safeguards to ensure that broadband providers treat all lawful traffic across their networks identically. These safeguards will ensure that the free flow of ideas and commerce across the Internet continue into the future.

The big content-provider players in the Net Neutrality discussion are Amazon, eBay, Google and Microsoft. The broadband providers include the usual suspects, such as AT&T, BellSouth, Comcast and Verizon. The government has an obvious role in Net Neutrality, with Congress moving to enact related laws and the FCC waiting in the wings to impose regulations. Finally, consumers and businesses that rely upon the Internet also are stakeholders in the issue.

To achieve Net Neutrality, a coalition of consumers and business must be created. This coalition must educate the nontechnical public as to what is at stake and pressure the government to take meaningful action.

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.

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