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Week of 6.2.06

A Closer Look at Net Neutrality

Congress is considering legislation that critics charge would set up a discriminatory tollbooth system on the information superhighway.

At the center of the debate is whether telecommunications and cable companies can favor some content providers over others by giving them more bandwidth (the "pipe" through which content is sent) in exchange for payment. So, in theory, Verizon could prefer Yahoo or Google, or another content provider, by giving them more bandwidth for a price.

Opponents of these plans are backing 'net neutrality' legislation, which would require all Web sites to be treated equally.

High-bandwidth "broadband" content, such as high-resolution video, is becoming increasingly popular as more people use the Internet to watch television shows and movies, and play sophisticated games.

Opposing Net Neutrality

Companies such as Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast provide the lines -- copper, cable, and fiber-optic -- and other hardware that connects Web sites to consumers but make virtually no money from the content that flows through those lines.

They've been lobbying hard to push through a system of fees that would divide the Internet into two tiers: a fast lane for companies who can afford to pay a large toll, and a slow lane for those who cannot. They say the fees are necessary to earn a return on the multibillion-dollar investment in broadband infrastructure.

The group Hands Off the Internet -- backed by companies such as AT&T and Alcatel -- is fighting the concept of net neutrality. Mike McCurry, the former Clinton press secretary who is chairman of the group, says that the telecom industry simply wants the Internet to be governed by economics, not government regulation.

"The problem is that the Internet we built is getting a little creaky ... So the question is as we build this Internet of the future, whose going to pay for it?" McCurry said.

In Favor of Net Neutrality

Opponents of these plans, including content providers like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft say establishing a tiered system is discriminatory and inherently wrong. They add that such legislation would turn the Internet into a place where money talks and innovation is squelched. In addition, they add that the democratic nature of the Internet, where all content creation is treated equally, could be lost., a coalition of consumer groups, higher education organizations, special interests, and Internet companies, says it has gathered some 750,000 names on a petition in support of 'net neutrality.' "If the public doesn't speak up now, our elected officials will cave to a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign," the group says on their Web site.

Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press, a nonprofit group that monitors media-related legislation, says he believes that if the Internet becomes two-tiered, any costs imposed on content providers will ultimately be passed on to the consumer. "Google and Amazon and Yahoo are not going to slice those payments out of their profit margins and eat them," he said.

The concept of net neutrality is embodied in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, established by Congress to ensure fundamental protections for the Internet as a non-discriminatory platform. At the time, the Internet was emerging as a platform for commerce, information sharing and democratic discourse. Congress decided to give the Internet a very light regulatory touch -- the law would simply guarantee equal treatment for everyone on the Internet.

As of August 2005, following a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that internet service provided via cable modem and DSL -- technologies which make up 98 percent of the broadband market -- are essentially exempted from the network neutrality provisions included in the 1996 Act.

Related Links

Federal Communications Commission: The Telecommunications Act of 1996
The FCC Web page devoted to the landmark Telecommunications Act of 1996, which promoted deregulation of the telecommunication industry.

Free Press
A media watchdog group in Washington D.C. that is campaigning for 'net neutrality.'

Hands Off the Internet
The group, headed by Mike McCurry, the former Clinton press secretary, includes companies such as AT&T and BellSouth. It calls itself ''a nationwide coalition of Internet users'' who oppose government regulation.
A coalition of consumer groups, higher education organizations, special interests, and Internet companies that have come together in support of 'net neutrality.' To date they say they have gathered some 750,000 names in support of their cause.

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