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Net neutrality debate heats up

By Alan Breznick

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Even as Microsoft and Yahoo tussle over the latter's future, a seemingly arcane debate over how and whether to regulate Internet traffic is threatening to seize center stage in cyberspace.

Large telecom, cable TV, computer, and Internet companies are girding for what promises to be a momentous policy battle over the rights of Web users to tap whatever they want without fear of interference, delays, or arbitrary transmission fees that might favor one content provider over another. With both lawmakers and regulators preparing new salvos on the subject, leading Web content providers and Internet service providers (ISPs) are lining up on either side of the issue, hoping to sway public opinion in their direction.

Should the federal government regulate ISPs to ensure that they treat all data carried on their transmission networks exactly the same? That's the crux of this increasingly heated debate over "network (or net) neutrality." Such big Internet firms as Microsoft, Google, Netscape, Yahoo and Amazon.com strongly believe that the government should do so, arguing that such "a level playing field" is essential to their Web-based content businesses. They are joined by several leading consumer groups, which contend that Internet providers should not be allowed to slow or block anyone's use of the Web or unfairly favor one content provider over another.

But such major cable and phone providers as Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon Communications, which own the biggest broadband pipes leading to the Internet, vehemently oppose net neutrality rules as unnecessary and intrusive. While insisting they don't discriminate, they contend that they have sound business and technical reasons for treating different types of data traffic on their networks in different ways. They are joined by their respective industry groups, which argue that Internet providers must be able to use "reasonable network management" methods to guide and control data traffic, similar to street stoplights and highway tolls and signs.

"There's an ironic bit to this," says Paul Francis, an associate professor of computer science at Cornell University. "For years, our community has been trying to get quality-of-service [service-level guarantees] in the network, but there's never been much of a business reason for it. Finally, there's a reason for wanting to do it."

The financial stakes in the net neutrality debate are large because of the huge size of the various companies and industries involved. "It's where the money is," says Tracy Mitrano, director of IT policy for Cornell. "You're talking about an enormous chunk of our gross national product."

Indeed, Kenneth Birman, a Cornell computer science professor, likens the emerging battle over regulating the freewheeling Web to the early 20th century struggle over regulating oil, gas, railroad, and other big, industrial monopolies. "The problem here is that the economics of the market are driving us towards a monopoly for the winner," he says. "It's the modern version of the monopoly argument."

Beyond the immediate financial issues, the stakes are also large because of the Internet's growing impact on many other aspects of American life. For instance, Birman worries about the rising power of companies like Verizon, Yahoo, or Google to use the Web to gather all sorts of personal data on individuals, including private phone and e-mail exchanges. He fears that this "quiet erosion of privacy" could lead to all sorts of problems over the next 10 to 15 years, particularly if these companies become unregulated cyber monopolies.

"These companies are starting to absorb quite a bit of what we think of as private information," such as medical records, he says. "When we're talking about net neutrality, we're talking about whether these companies should hold power" over consumers' "private" digital records.

The long-dormant issue broke out into the open late last year when cable giant Comcast, the nation's largest broadband provider,

"The problem here is that the economics of the market are driving us towards a monopoly for the winner."
– Professor Kenneth Birman, Computer Science

admitted that it delays some Web traffic from such increasingly popular peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing networks as BitTorrent because of concerns about heavy bandwidth use. Cable and phone companies complain that such file-sharing applications are clogging up their networks by driving explosive growth in online video uploads and downloads. In December 2007 alone, for instance, research firm comScore estimates that online users viewed a record 10 billion videos.

"Independent research has shown that it takes as few as 15 active BitTorrent users uploading content in a particular geographic area to create congestion sufficient to degrade the experience of the hundreds of other users in that area," David Cohen, an executive vice president of Comcast, told the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in a late February hearing on the issue. "Bandwidth-intensive activities not only degrade other less-intense uses, but also significantly interfere with thousands of Internet companies' businesses."

But companies like Vuze, Inc., a rapidly expanding online video provider, contend that broadband providers like Comcast use "reasonable network management" as an excuse to stave off challengers to their core video business. Vuze relies on BitTorrent's software to distribute videos to broadband subscribers, often in competition with Comcast and other network operators.

"We compete with Comcast for delivery of content over the Internet," Vuze CEO Gilles BianRose testified at the same FCC hearing. "What we have here is a horse race. And in this contest, Comcast owns the race track, in fact the only track in town. They also own a horse."

Seeking to stop Comcast's delay tactics, Vuze filed a complaint against the company with the FCC, prompting a commission inquiry and a late February hearing in Cambridge, Mass. Among other things, Vuze charged that Comcast was violating the FCC's 2005 Internet policy statement that generally forbids network operators from blocking applications, but does permit them to engage in "reasonable management" practices.

At the hearing, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and other commission officials sharply questioned Comcast over its actions. Noting that "we do not take these allegations lightly," Martin stressed that network providers cannot "arbitrarily block access to certain services." He said the agency is weighing whether to slap a fine on Comcast or issue an order that would restrict the company's ability to slow down broadband traffic to file-sharing users.

Already under fire, Comcast exacerbated the issue (inadvertently, the company claims) when it admitted that it paid people to occupy seats at the hearing in the cramped Harvard Law School lecture hall. While Comcast says it did so merely to save seats for late-arriving company executives, consumer groups complained that the move kept other critics from attending the hearing.

Besides the FCC inquiry, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) has introduced a new bill in Congress with Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) to push net neutrality principles. Known as the "Internet Freedom Preservation Act," the bill wouldn't actually impose any new regulations on the Internet, but it would give the FCC greater power to police Internet providers to ensure that they're delivering all data traffic fairly.

Despite these moves in Washington, observers doubt that either the FCC or Congress will do much about the issue during the last year of the laissez-faire Bush administration. Some also think that lawmakers and regulators may be in a bit over their heads, torn by the conflicting arguments and unsure how to proceed.

"I think [the government is] paralyzed right now," says Cornell IT policy director Mitrano, who would like to see "a lot of vigorous public debate" on the issue, led by the academic community. "Legislators have frozen in the proverbial headlights."

In spite of its growing importance to the tech community, net neutrality has not exactly emerged as a big stump issue in the early stages of the presidential race. Of the three remaining major candidates, only Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) had even touched on the issue as of early March, expressing a commitment to net neutrality mandates.

"The current administration is focused elsewhere," says Birman, who urges the presidential candidates to address the issue. "I think it'd be a healthy thing if debates started to focus on issues like this."

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