RealTime IT News

Courting Industry in The 'Net Neutrality Debate

NEW YORK -- If Internet neutrality is ever going to be the law of the land, businesses are going to have to join the movement, insisted two of the more outspoken advocates of a national broadband policy to bar Internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking or degrading certain network traffic.

The two trumpeted the cause to a smattering of search engine marketers here at the Search Engine Strategies conference.

"The public and private sector need to join behind a plan to deliver an open and affordable Internet to every American," said Timothy Karr, campaign director of Free Press, the Washington, D.C.-based media advocacy group that leads the SavetheInternet.com coalition.

Sharing the stage with Karr was David Isenberg, a Net neutrality evangelist who formerly worked as a technician with AT&T. The two spoke of the issue in dire terms, at times comparing the ability of telephone and cable companies to selectively block traffic with the censored Internet of countries like China, Iran and North Korea.

While admitting that wholesale censorship was something of a "doomsday scenario," Karr said that the issue has real implications for e-commerce on Internet marketing. A non-neutral Internet invites the possibility of ISPs forming back-room alliances with online retailers to favor one site while slowing access to another.

In this way, for instance, Amazon could sign reach an agreement with AT&T that would disadvantage Barnes and Noble's site by creating long latencies that would turn shoppers away.

In such a scenario, it would become impossible for online marketers to gauge the true effectiveness of a campaign, because they would never know if their digital placements succeeded or failed because of an ISP manipulating the accessibility of certain Web sites.

"The reason this is important is that if the guys that own the wires start polluting the data you collect, then you can't do your job," Isenberg told the audience.

Speaking in a cavernous ballroom to an audience that never exceeded 30 people, the presenters implored the attendees to spread the word to their colleagues that Net neutrality is more than a high-minded debate over principles, that it is a business issue.

The cable and telephone companies were not on hand to defend their position, which holds that the freedom to manage their networks is necessary to prevent a small minority of Internet users who consume a vastly disproportionate amount of bandwidth through peer-to-peer file sharing and other data-intensive applications from slowing connection speeds for other, more moderate users.

The real fight that Free Press and other groups face is in convincing legislators that the innovative climate of open Internet that led to the advent of Google, eBay and other dot-com wonders is in danger if they fail to codify Net neutrality. To do this, they are going against the powerful and entrenched lobbying machines of the phone and cable companies.

The Federal Communications Commission has been conducting an inquiry into allegations that Comcast throttled traffic from peer-to-peer file sharing site BitTorrent. Most recently, the Commission has been taking the issue outside of the Beltway, with a hearing in Boston, and in remarks FCC Chairman Kevin Martin made when speaking at Stanford University.

Last month, the debate reopened in Congress, with the introduction of the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, calling for, among other things, a series of summits around the country to examine how ISPs manage their networks.

Several industry groups quickly condemned the legislation for trying to blindly regulate the Internet, claiming that it would stifle innovation in the process of trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist.

A Net neutrality bill was introduced in the Senate last January, but has stalled since.

With members such as Google, eBay and IAC, the Open Internet Coalition is widely seen as the industry counterpart to the grassroots SavetheInternet.com. Throughout the presentation, Karr hinted at a coming collaboration between the two groups.

As a rule, Web companies have not been as adept at pulling the levers of power in Washington as the major players from more established industries. A unified show of force between public policy groups like Free Press and a broad industry coalition will find a more sympathetic audience among policymakers, particularly in the next administration, regardless of who wins the presidency, Karr said.

While he would not elaborate on the prospect of a formal alliance of the two Net neutrality umbrella groups, Karr told InternetNews.com that the cause has become more of a mainstream policy issue, and that his organization and others are finding lawmakers to be increasingly receptive when they make their case.

In a pragmatic sense, the added clout of a widening industry consortium could undermine the broad-brush claim of opponents that any government effort to regulate a robust industry is inherently anti-business.

If the anemic attendance of the presentation was any indication, however, industry at large might have yet to identify Net neutrality as the mission-critical business priority that Karr and Isenberg claim it to be.