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Choosing Sides Over Net Neutrality

In the occasional rough-and-tumble of where business, politics and the Internet meet, the phrase 'net neutrality' has become fighting words. It's an easy bet that most people have no idea what 'net neutrality' means, let alone what the fight's about. At stake, however, may be the future shape and cost of the Internet. VOA's Doug Bernard spoke with reporter Sara Jerome of The Hill for more about the battle.

UPDATE: On a 3-2 vote divided along party lines, members of the FCC Tuesday voted to approve a package of rules that would largely bar Internet service providers from selectively restricting bandwidth or consumer access to the web.

Commission chairman Julius Genachowski proposed the guidelines - sometimes referred to as "net neutrality" - to, in his words, create a strong but flexible future framework for the Internet. "For the first time, we'll have enforceable rules of the road to preserve Internet freedom and openness," he said.

Under the provisions, networks such as Comcast or AT&T would not be allowed to slow or block Internet traffic from high-bandwidth or competitor's sites. The rules would allow ISPs to provide a range of tiered services, offering greater speeds and capacities at higher prices, although as the Wall Street Journal is reporting, the rules would seem to discourage such "high speed toll lanes."

Republicans members of the commission opposed the move, questioning the legal authority of the action and the regulatory need. Previously, 29 members of the US Senate signed a letter urging the FCC to delay action. Already Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), ranking minority member of the Senate Commerce Committee, announced she will introduce a measure to overturn Tuesday's FCC vote.

December 18, 2010

The phrase "net neutrality" is relatively new, coming into popular use as recently as 2003 as noted by the scholarly article Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination by Tim Wu of Columbia Law School. But the issues at play are as old as last century's technology battles over telephones and telegraphs.

The concept is fairly simple: net neutrality guarantees that every user of the Internet - no matter how large or small, rich or poor, and regardless of purpose - will be treated equally in terms of access, bandwidth, and inter-connectivity. The analogy is made to the nation's telephone network: the customer can choose his or her equipment, service, or purpose of the call, but once connected to the "common carrier" network of phone lines is to be considered equal to everyone else.

In this view the Internet - like our networks of phone, gas or civic water systems - is a public good that everyone has an equal right to use.

In the early days of the web there was little debate about this principle, largely because there was very little need: online traffic was limited and commerce non-existent. But as the Internet grew more complex and commercialized, a growing number of interests began calling for greater traffic regulation.

Industry network heavyweights like Comcast, AT&T and others say they need to be able to control network traffic, allowing users and providers varying degrees of bandwidth - at varying costs - to keep the Internet running smoothly and profitably. These firms have spent millions trying to convince regulators and the public that without these tools and controls, the web may lose any competitive advantages it has.

Content providers, like Google, Yahoo!, Amazon and others warn that such control would be tantamount to a shut-off valve that networks could use to slow or speed traffic at their choice. That, they say, would end the essential openness of the Internet and kill innovation, and they, too, have spent freely in the battle. Both sides have sought to bolster their message by partnering with a cross-section of political interest groups from across the ideological spectrum.

Net neutrality has also pitted Congress against the Federal Communications Commission to some degree, with Washington watching closely to see which side comes out on top. Under the Constitution, the Legislative Branch - Congress - has the right to shape policy through the "power of the purse" - the sole branch of government with the authority to tax and spend. However the FCC, as part of the Executive Branch, has the responsibility of executing public laws - in their case, protecting the public airwaves from dispute or disruption.

On December 21, the FCC is scheduled to vote on a series of net neutrality rules and principles put forward by Chairman Julius Genachowski. Lawmakers, business and interests groups have all been weighing in on the proposed rule-making, calling for its passage or defeat.

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.