Who’s Winning the Battle Over Net Neutrality?

This article was originally published on July 7, 2008, and is brought to you as part of our Best of ECT News series.

The Internet is the greatest technical development of the 20th century, and its open competition model has been the envy of other market sectors. Internet advances are being crushed by monopolistic carriers who are more concerned with censoring content than delivering services to customers. Those disparate statements sum up the positions of the two sides squaring off in an increasingly contentious debate about the Internet’s future.

On one side of the debate are Internet service providers (ISPs), which are trying to build viable business models for delivering their services in a rapidly evolving marketplace. On the other side are watchdog groups who feel that the carriers’ plans run counter to the Internet’s primary mission.

The debate has become more intense because of the nature of the information flowing over the network. “The recent influx of video applications is one of the reasons why the Net neutrality debate has gained more traction,” Alex Winogradoff, research vice president at Gartner, told the E-Commerce Times.

Video Requires Loads of Bandwidth

Video applications such as online gaming apps take up more bandwidth than simpler applications such as e-mail. In addition, a growing number of carriers are delivering Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services that require clean connections from their starting points to their end points.

Consequently, carriers have been experimenting with Quality of Service (QoS) features, which prioritize different types of traffic. In such cases, priority is given or taken from one application to improve the performance of another. In addition, what carriers charge customers varies with these services. In some cases, ISPs want to charge more for the extra bandwidth needed for video content from sites such as YouTube compared with the textual information from an e-mail service.

Net neutrality advocates view such practices as discriminatory, and want to make them unlawful. They feel that every user should have the ability to use whatever service he or she desires without any additional fees. “Net Neutrality supporters want to prevent network operators such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon from blocking or throttling any content that travels across their pipes,” Irene Berlinsky, a research analyst at IDC, told the E-Commerce Times. The backers also object to the establishment of different pricing models.

Is the Internet Becoming Elitist?

These groups’ position stems from a couple of concerns. They are afraid that the Internet will morph into an elitist rather than a populist technology: Bandwidth will be available only to those who have the money to pay for it. “We are also concerned about the criteria that carriers are using to block traffic,” Markham Erickson, executive director of the Open Internet Coalition, told the E-Commerce Times. Rather than making decisions based solely on network performance, ISPs may block content based on competitive pressures — blocking items that compete with their own services — or arbitrary moral issues such as blocking items of questionable taste or stringent political views.

Large telephone and cable companies have argued against the need of putting such principles into law. They claim that they’re not interested in blocking sites or services but deserve the right to charge extra for high bandwidth services to recoup their investments made in the network upgrade needed to support bandwidth intensive applications such as streaming video and online gaming. Broadband providers have been spending billions annually on items such as running fiber closer to U.S. homes and businesses.

The difference in opinion case came to head in the summer of 2007 when news surfaced that Comcast was blocking traffic associated with BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer file-sharing system. Such applications have been an anathema for carriers. Often, peer-to-peer applications have been used to illegally download music and movies. On occasion, content providers have asked carriers to block such traffic, so it becomes less likely that music or other types of content can be illegally downloaded.

Comcast Clams Up

Compounding the problem has been Comcast’s silence on its practice. Citing competitive reasons, the carrier has refused to divulge its practice and the formula it has used to block different types of traffic. Tests run by independent groups have found that the carrier has been blocking or throttling back seemingly innocent content, such as transmissions of the Bible. However, Comcast and BitTorrent in March announced that they would work together to come up with solutions to ensure full user access.

Net neutrality supporters have backed a few bills in Congress. Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe and North Dakota Democrat Sen. Byron Dorgan teamed up to introduce the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, which would bar network operators from blocking or degrading access to Internet content and services. On the House of Representatives side, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., has been sponsoring similar legislation. Also, back in May, Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Democrat from Michigan who is also chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, introduced the Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act of 2008. None of the bills has garnered sufficient support to become law.

Carriers in Control – At Least For Now

To date, the carriers seemingly have been on the winning side. Their supporters point to the investments being made to deliver broadband services and note that broadband access is widely available at reasonable rates. Consequently, the Federal Communications Committee has been reluctant to step in and put additional regulations in place.

However, the battle continues. The two sides are at loggerheads and seem incapable of reaching a compromise on their own. While Congress seems content to stand still for now, its position could change by the end of the year. “The different bills could gain support depending on November’s presidential election,” Gartner’s Winogradoff told the E-Commerce Times. A Democratic win could lead to possible intervention by the FCC while a Republican victory would probably maintain the status quo. In addition to prominent issues, such as gas prices and the War in Iraq, voters will determine the Internet’s future in this year’s presidential election.

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