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Citizens Class: Net Neutrality

What principles should drive our policies regarding technology?

(Transcripts of video clips are at the end of the document.)

Backgrounder: Net Neutrality
The debate is hot, the language heady, the metaphors many. Op-ed pages alternately bemoan "The End of the Internet" or curse "Net Neutrality Nonsense." Allegations fly about the stifling of free speech, the holding back of progress, corporate hegemony. Indeed, network neutrality has become something of a cause celebre in the digital world, pitting a slew of high-profile Internet content providers and consumer-advocacy groups against major phone and cable companies, and federal lawmakers against each other ... [more]

Class Is in Session...
Remember dial-up access? The buzz on the telephone line and then the long wait for the Web page to load? Today the mere memory of that slowness seems painful. Yet even with new technology and high-speed access, many of us still find our patience tested when we have to wait more than a few seconds for sites to load.

But the large cable and phone companies who provide broadband access say that unless there is major change in the capacity of their networks and the way in which data is transmitted, long waits will be the order of the day. The growing number of Web sites and bandwidth-heavy content on the Internet, they say, threatens to clog the entire system, making everything load more slowly.

So they want to upgrade the system. Good news, right? Well, not to everyone. Upgrading the system is an expensive proposition, and who will pay for it-and how they will pay-has divided Internet users and forced the battle into the national political spotlight. The telecom companies want Web sites that send large packages of data-generally sites that include video, audio, and other multimedia applications-to pay more. That, they insist, is how they'll finance a more robust Internet system.

So what if some sites take longer to load than others because they didn't pay a premium for the network operator to put their data in the fast lane? Would consumers have the patience to wait it out, or would they jump ship for the faster loading competitor's site? What would this new tiered system do to sites that don't have the resources to play ball? Would the telephone and cable companies play fair and charge every site the same fee, or would they slap exorbitant tolls on sites whose content they don't like? What's more, the companies that deliver internet connections to most homes are increasingly in the business of generating content, as well, so supporters of neutrality worry that they'll be in a position to privilege their own content over competitors. For example, if AT&T decided to start its own online auction site, neutrality supporters say, the firm's customers might find themselves unable to use eBay -- unless Congress protects net neutrality. Get a brief introduction to the debate from the video.

Watch the video

These are the issues being debated by Congress and these are the issues we will consider in this session of the MOYERS ON AMERICA Citizens Class. It is an important and contentious issue. And there is much at stake.

In this Citizens Class, you will learn more about the issues at the heart of this debate, and have an opportunity to contribute your ideas about what should be considered in a sound telecommunications policy. In addition to this discussion guide, we encourage you to read Net Neutrality: Background and Issues, a report to Congress prepared by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the office which provides information on important issues to representatives and senators. (Read Broadband Internet Regulation and Access: Background and Issues)(PDF)

We also have invited two guest bloggers who are telecommunications experts with different ideas on what they think our telecommunications policy should be. Just as Congress does when it invites experts to testify on pending legislation, this class is your opportunity to pose questions to further your understanding of the issues and possible consequences of various policy options. Much like they would do in giving testimony on the Hill, our guest bloggers will be monitoring the questions you pose at the end of this page and will respond].

Read through this brief guide and think about the questions you would need answered before developing new telecommunications policy. Some of the questions you will want to consider:

  • Is regulation needed to guarantee that all data sent over the Internet is given equal access and nondiscriminatory treatment-that is, net neutrality?
  • Should network operators be allowed to charge higher rates for Web sites that use heavy bandwidth technology, like voice and video?
  • Who should bear the cost of overhauling the Internet infrastructure to meet the growing demand for high-speed, reliable data transfer?
  • Is the Internet so indispensable to the success of our economy, our culture, and our nation that it should not discriminate or be regulated in the same manner as other utilities?

In order to understand this issue, we need to back up and understand how the Internet works how content on the Internet is developed and delivered.

Telecommunications companies are the network operators that carry online content (Web sites, data, video, VOiP) to Internet users. Content is created by big companies like Google, Amazon and eBay, as well as by small retail businesses, artists and musicians, news organizations, nonprofits, educational institutions and individuals with something to say-basically, any Web site can be considered a content creator. Currently, Internet traffic is delivered on an equal basis. That is, a family Web site where members can download video of the last reunion picnic is treated the same as a newspaper site or any other data streaming down the information superhighway.

This system of delivery is called net neutrality - no one gets special preference and it's the Internet version of the legal concept of "common carriage" or that no customer seeking reasonable service - and able to pay a competitive price - would be denied lawful use of a transportation service or would otherwise be discriminated against. Net neutrality was the rule until recently because the Federal Communications Commission had enforced that system. But, in 2002, the FCC decided that neutrality didn't apply to cable internet. And in the summer of 2005, the FCC replaced them the net neutrality rules suggested "principles" for an open internet. (Glossary of net neutrality terms)

At the core of the net neutrality debate is whether or not network operators-those who control the lanes on the superhighway-should be allowed to charge higher rates for large Internet packet streams being sent by content providers. The telephone and cable companies want the high-bandwidth data users to pay. As AT&T Chairman Edward Whitacre Jr. told Business Week, "Why should they be allowed to use my pipes [i.e., my network]? The Internet can't be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment, and for a Google or Yahoo! or Vonage or anybody to expect to use the pipes [for] free is nuts."

The ways that network operators might put this system into operation are to selectively block packets of data, adjust the quality of service (speed, for example), or adjust prices so that larger packets that include multimedia applications would pay more. Some critics of this system like Columbia Law professor Timothy Wu say it in effect adds up to paying twice. "The Bell companies want the opportunity to charge twice. They want to charge for Google to connect to the network at all, and then they want to charge another price to reach their consumers."

Other critics say that this move by the telecom companies violates a core principle of the Internet. They propose restrictions on the owners of the networks, to ensure equal access and nondiscriminatory treatment. "Owners of the networks that compose and provide access to the Internet should not control how consumers lawfully use that network; and should not be able to discriminate against content provider access to that network" wrote the Congressional Research Service in its report to Congress. Still others are concerned that the plethora of voices now available online might be reduced - or rendered less effective - because those who could pay for faster travel would most likely win out for users. Some neutrality supporters say the "pipes" don't even belong to the telephone and cable companies -- that they're not Ed Whitacre's pipes at all -- because tax breaks and government subsidies helped pay for the network.

(Read the Congressional Research Service report) (PDF)

Issues that are driving this debate:
  • Some contend that the consolidation and diversification of broadband providers into content providers has the potential to lead to discriminatory behaviors which conflict with net neutrality principles.
  • The increase in the number of packets going out will eventually exceed the limitation of the existing networks. The telecom industry says it will invest — if there's no neutrality — in a multibillion dollar overhaul of the Internet infrastructure to accommodate the growing demands on its pipes, raising the question of who should pay.
  • The technology has changed in such a way that it is possible for network operators to treat some classes of traffic differently from others.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the agency that regulates the nation's telecommunication's infrastructure. Two actions in 2005 fueled the net neutrality debate. The details of these actions are included in the Congressional Research Service's report on net neutrality. In the Brand X Case, the Supreme Court upheld an FCC decision to define broadband services provided by cable companies as "information services" under Title I regulations. These regulations are less strict than Title II regulations which impose the kind of rigorous anti-discrimination, interconnection, and access requirements that are consistent with the principles of net neutrality. Then, the FCC decided to extend those same privileges to telephone companies involved in providing Internet access services. As a result, cable operators and telephone Internet service providers no longer fall under the strict Title II. These two actions raised concerns in the net neutrality community. Arguments by those who support net neutrality:
  • The only way to maintain the Internet as the open and free space we have come to appreciate is for government to prevent telecommunications companies from charging extra fees to heavy users.
  • More specific regulatory guidelines may be necessary to protect the marketplace from potential abuses which could threaten the net neutrality concept.
  • Some people fear that discriminatory practices would be the result if broadband providers become content providers or have the option to control how the content is delivered.
  • The two-tiered system proposed by the network operators would violate their First Amendment rights because those who could pay would get preferential treatment.
  • A tiered pricing system could pose a barrier for people who are developing new Web sites, or offering new services, or providing other content for download. They might have to pay more to get the top-level access to the broadband pipes, and that could limit the possibilities for new companies and individuals who want to develop more sites and services online.
  • There is little competition in the broadband market since most consumers have limited options. At best, consumers in larger markets can choose between cable or telephone connections. In smaller markets, there may only be one choice. This removes the incentive for the network operator to avoid discriminatory practices that harm consumers or aggressively seek to benefit consumers. Since network operators don't have competition, they could engage in discriminatory practices that increase profits but harm consumers. Without the option to take their business elsewhere, the consumer would be at the mercy of the network operator.
Arguments by those who oppose net neutrality regulation:
  • In an article in the National Law Journal, Randolph J. May, a senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation in Washington, DC, argues that net neutrality legislation would violate the First Amendment rights of network service providers like Verizon and Comcast because it would restrict them from exercising their own right to free speech.
  • Action to ensure unfettered access to the Internet is unnecessary. To date, neither the cable operators nor the telephone companies providing broadband Internet services have blocked, impaired, or otherwise restricted subscriber access to the content of unaffiliated entities. Passing net neutrality laws would be just blind response to a harm that may never materialize.
  • Existing laws and FCC policies are sufficient to deal with potential anti-competitive behavior.
  • Net neutrality regulations would have negative effects on the expansion and future development of the Internet.
  • Telecommunications companies should have the right to charge heavy users more to offset the costs of building greater broadband capacity. They own the means of transmission.
  • They should be allowed to charge data-heavy sites more than others so that those of us who don't download lots of data don't get socked with higher user fees? Heavy sites cause traffic congestion that affects the ability of others to use the Internet and should therefore pay more.
  • Data-heavy content providers or Web sites should have to pay more to use the cyber-highways just as commercial transporters pay more for trucks that do more damage to the highways than regular vehicles.
(Additional voices from the debate)

  • What principles should drive our policies regarding technology in this country and how do those principles support our technological position in the world?

  • Read the Congressional Research Service report "Net Neutrality: Background and Issues." What additional facts do you need to know or questions do you have for our guest bloggers?

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