A heated debate is shaping up in Washington about a concept some activists are calling Internet network neutrality, known more popularly as net neutrality. At issue are calls for the U.S. government to regulate the Internet, and, in effect, opponents say, determine which companies get bigger shares of the profits.
Net neutrality refers to the idea that network operators must treat all Internet content equally. In its specifics, though, the debate is also an argument over money.
Companies that provide Internet content, like Yahoo or Google, want the U.S. government to prohibit high-speed Internet broadband providers, like Verizon or Comcast, from charging more to guarantee service quality and access to all Web sites.
Proponents of net neutrality legal protections include Google's Vinton Cerf, a computer engineer, who helped create the World Wide Web decades ago.
"I am deeply, deeply troubled by the current situation, in which we may lose the openness of the Internet," said Mr. Cerf.
In testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Cerf accused broadband providers of taking advantage of their market power to try to control public access to Web sites.
"They [broadband companies] intend to charge providers of Internet service doubly, that is to say, they charge consumers for access to the broadband network, and they advertise it as broadband access, and then turn around and say, 'well you won't really have access to all of the 400 million servers on the Internet, unless some of those servers have paid us to carry their traffic over your broadband access," he explained.
Opponents of that argument accuse groups in the pro-net neutrality camp of trying to protect their profits.
David Cohen, of Comcast Corporation, the largest U.S. provider of cable, entertainment and communications products and services, testified that computer software company Microsoft sounded alarm bells in 2002 over perceived threats to net neutrality, but that the threats never materialized. Instead, he says, during that time, Web content providers made huge sums of money.
"From the time of the first net neutrality scare, Microsoft's annual revenues have grown by over $10 billion per year. Meanwhile, the market cap of Google has soared from nothing, to approximately $117 billion. Everyone should have these kinds of problems," said Mr .Cohen.
Cohen said he feels legislation mandating net neutrality, as proposed by some lawmakers, is not necessary, because his company has no plans to take any actions that would threaten it. He added that he believes these regulations would also discourage his company from investing to develop new technology.
"Our position is, there is no way to predict what our business model and what the potential innovations on the Internet will be a year from now, three years from now, five years from now," he said. "And that the risks of regulating the Internet to protect against a hypothetical harm, of drying up investment and of drying up innovation, are too great a price to pay. Let's allow this market to evolve."
This position was echoed by Senate Judiciary Committee member Senator Sam Brownback, who said, at this point, net neutrality regulation would only be addressing hypothetical problems.
"I think, this is a legislation in search of a problem," said Senator Brownback. "Things have been phenomenally successful, in terms of expanding of opportunity on the Internet. And it continues to happen and I would hope we wouldn't go in with a regulatory arm on this."
Senator Olympia Snowe, who co-sponsored one net-neutrality bill, says its purpose is to preempt problems.
"Once problems develop, then ultimately it's going to be very hard to put the genie back in the bottle," she said. "And that's the issue here. We're trying to preserve the status quo, the Internet as consumers know it today, where 73 percent of adults utilize the Internet."
The U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month passed telecommunications legislation that did not include the provisions net neutrality advocates had called for. The issue has now moved over to the Senate, which is scheduled to begin considering and voting on any amendments to a broader communications reform bill June 20.