RealTime IT News

A One-Sided Net Neutrality Debate

PALO ALTO, CALIF. - What if someone held a debate and only one side showed up? The likely result is what happened here Thursday on the campus of Stanford University, where a bunch of people sat around mostly agreeing with each other.

To be sure, there were some differences of opinion in this debate on Net neutrality, sponsored by the Federal Communications Commission. But they were minor compared to the fireworks that would have ensued had the Internet Service Providers showed up.

Of course, that's probably why they stayed away.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and Commissioner Robert McDowell expressed disappointment that Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and CableLabs declined repeated invitations to show at the event. Comcast did participate at a similar public hearing at Harvard Law School earlier this year. Martin also spoke on the issue of network neutrality at an event at Stanford Law School just last month.

"I do wish there were some network operators here to answer questions," he said. "I am very disappointed that they aren't here."

The ISPs, and Comcast in particular, are under fire for slowing or throttling traffic on their networks, in particular peer-to-peer traffic like BiTTorrent, which is used to exchange large amounts of data. Among the guest speakers was Robb Topolski, a network engineer who first uncovered that Comcast was throttling network traffic.

Comcast has since made its traffic shaping policy public and made peace with BitTorrent, although Topolski complained that the throttling is "still going on today."

The event opened with statements from the entire FCC panel. FCC Commissioner Michael Copps won over the audience the best with his speech. "It is important to the economy and our position in the world that the open Internet, perhaps the most wonderful innovation since the printing press, be kept open," he said. "There are powerful interests in the land who would bring it under control for their purposes which may not be your purposes."

Don't tread on me

Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein was also pretty vocal in calling for power to deal with companies like Comcast, lest they interfere with the Internet again. " Consumers are saying 'don't tread on me' and people who look the other way do so at their own peril, and the government that does so does it at its own peril," he said.

However, Martin was a little more restrained, arguing that the FCC's current Internet policy is sufficient and only needs to be enforced to guarantee that whatever actions Internet service providers are taking is tailored to "a legitimate purpose." He also sided with Comcast, saying it should be permitted to manage its network to insure that traffic flows smoothly.

Stanford professor Lawrence Lessig gave the FCC an earful in his usual genteel manner. "We are facing these problems because of a failure of FCC policy," he said, with the full FCC sitting a few feet behind him. "The burden should be on those who would change its architecture," Lessig continued.