The Fight for Network Neutrality Continues

Do we really have to wait till these corporate giants divide and conquer the open architecture of the Internet to make that against the law?
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Last week, those on the side of saving the Internet as we know it - those who revere its open architecture, and respect its powerful ability to promote innovation - scored a moral victory of sorts by improving our vote in a key House Energy and Commerce Committee markup. For certain, we closed the gap considerably on the Network Neutrality amendment that I offered along with Representatives Boucher (D-VA), Eshoo (D-CA), and Inslee (D-WA) from the time it was first offered in the Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee at the beginning of April.

While the amendment lost thanks to all Republican members save one voting against it, we clearly now have the momentum swinging to our side. Sometime in the coming two weeks, the House leadership will bring the so-called "COPE Act" (HR 5252) to the House floor, where I will again attempt to attach real net neutrality protections to the legislation.

The COPE Act is woefully deficient in protecting the Internet. Its provisions essentially bless the broadband designs of a few large companies, such as AT&T and Verizon, over those of thousands of web-based businesses, entrepreneurs, and individual citizens.

It is vital that we enact meaningful network neutrality provisions as soon as possible, because the threat facing the Internet is very real. Recent decisions by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and court interpretations clearly put these aspects of broadband networks and the Internet in jeopardy. The replacement of historic policies of nondiscrimination with the imposition of bottleneck taxes by broadband network owners endangers economic growth, innovation, job creation, and First Amendment freedom of expression on such networks. Broadband network owners should not be able to determine who can and who cannot offer services over broadband networks or over the Internet. The detrimental effect to the digital economy would be quite severe if such conduct were permitted and became widespread.

Think that it's unlikely that these fears will come to pass, and that legislation enshrining these principles of network neutrality is unnecessary? Then take a look at what several industry leaders have said on this topic in recent months:

  • Just a few weeks after the FCC removed the Internet's protections, the Chairman of then-SBC Communications made the following statement in a November 7th Business Week interview: "Now what they [Google, Yahoo, MSN] would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there's going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they're using. . . ."

  • In a December 1, 2005 Washington Post article, a BellSouth executive indicated that his company wanted to strike deals to give certain Web sites priority treatment in reaching computer users. The article noted this would "significantly change how the Internet operates" and that the BellSouth executive said "his company should be allowed to charge a rival voice-over-Internet firm so that its service can operate with the same quality as BellSouth's offering." Meaning, that if the rival firm did not pay, or was not permitted to pay for competitive reasons, its service presumably would not "operate with the same quality" as BellSouth's own product.
  • Finally, on January 6, 2006, the CEO of Verizon, in an address to the Consumer Electronics Show also indicated that Verizon would now be the corporate arbiter of how traffic would be treated when he said the following: "We have to make sure [content providers] don't sit on our network and chew up our capacity."
  • I think these statements should give pause to those who might argue that we shouldn't do anything to enact strong network neutrality provisions because currently no harm is being done.

    Do we really have to wait till these corporate giants divide and conquer the open architecture of the Internet to make that against the law? These telephone company executives are telling us that they intend to discriminate in the prioritization of bits and to discriminate in the offering of "quality of service" functions - for a new fee, a new broadband bottleneck toll - to access high bandwidth customers. We cannot afford to wait until they actually start doing that before we step in to stop it.

    Yesterday, I introduced the Network Neutrality Act of 2006 (HR 5273) as a standalone bill. The Network Neutrality Act of 2006 offers Members a clear choice. It is a choice between broadband barons and average-joe cyber-surfers, between the pre-chosen voices favored by those in the executive suite and the wonderfully chaotic nature of the net, where a chorus or a cacophony of voices can emerge on any and every issue. At its heart, this issue is about safeguarding the Internet as a low-barrier-to-entry platform for innovation.

    In short, this legislation is designed to save the Internet and thwart those who seek to fundamentally and detrimentally alter the Internet as we know it, and it is my belief that the unbelievable grassroots uprising that we have seen on this issue over the past few weeks will help propel us to victory and secure the future of the Internet for all of us.

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