RealTime IT News

'Net Neutrality Groups Form New Front

Universal broadband access

NEW YORK -- In response to concerns that cable and telecom companies aren't doing enough to build out broadband access in the U.S., public interest and business groups have formed a new initiative to push for a national broadband policy.

The new InternetforEveryone.org organization aims to ensure that all Americans have affordable access to high-speed Internet service.

Announced today here at the Personal Democracy Forum at Lincoln Center, the group counts Internet leaders Google and eBay among its members.

Also involved are advocacy groups including the National Organization for Women and the American Civil Liberties Union, and labor unions like the Writers Guild of America and the Service Employees International Union.

During today's launch, organizers said that InternetforEveryone is not advocating any particular piece of legislation.

Instead, it is calling on Congress and the president to take up the issue of broadband availability and craft a policy around the core concepts of greater access, openness, innovation and choice.

"We start from this simple premise: To fully realize the 'Net's potential, all Americans must have access to a fast, open, and affordable Internet," said Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, a media and Internet reform advocacy group. "Today, they do not."

The driving force behind the formation of the new organization, Free Press, is the non-profit group that has been leading the charge for 'Net neutrality, a concept that for the most part calls for regulation that would prohibit Internet service providers from blocking or degrading certain traffic on their networks based on bandwidth usage.

The move comes in the wake of a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a multinational economic forum, that ranked the United States as No. 15 in average broadband speed among the 30 countries it measured.

That report, seen by many as the latest sign in an alarming trend of the United States' declining position in the global Internet economy, found that 10 million U.S. households have no broadband service.

An additional 50 million who live where access is available do not subscribe because the service is either too slow or too expensive, it found.

The latest push also marks a renewed effort to get Congress to adopt some sort of 'Net neutrality laws, and comes as the fall presidential election approaches. The current Democratic majority ruling Congress has so far failed to pass any legislation mandating 'Net neutrality. The presenters today anticipated an opportunity to make universal Internet access a legislative priority after the fall elections.

In making their case, supporters often spoke in pointed rhetoric.

"This is the first time we've tried to undertake the building of a fundamental social infrastructure against the background of a Neanderthal philosophy, which is limited government, that government has no place," said Larry Lessig, a law professor at Stanford University and an outspoken advocate of progressive tech policy issues.

"That Neanderthal philosophy has governed for about eight years, and it has allowed us to slide from a leader in this field to an abysmal position," Lessig said during today's event.

[cob:Pull_Quote]The policy that the group envisions would build out network infrastructure to bring high-speed Internet access to rural areas that are currently underserved.

It would also mandate that consumers have a choice between ISPs to prevent what the group characterizes as monopolistic conditions in many markets that currently have just one provider.

The policy would also codify the principles of 'Net neutrality, a contentious debate that has drawn staunch opposition from cable and telecom providers, who argue that government involvement with the Internet would curb innovation and slow network expansion by imposing burdensome regulatory requirements.

'Net neutrality advocates often lament that they run up against a powerful lobby in the form of cable and telecom companies, who have so far convinced regulators and lawmakers that a hands-off approach to the Internet is working.

However, FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein was on hand at today's event to support the initiative and vented his frustration at what he called a policy of "eight years of benign neglect" of the Internet, in part due to intense lobbying by the network operators.

InternetforEveryone also represents a new partnership between advocacy groups such as Free Press and major tech companies such as Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and eBay (NASDAQ: EBAY), who routinely voice support for 'Net neutrality initiatives. Their participation, InternetforEveryone supporters hope, could help defuse the argument that government regulation is inherently anti-business.

Earlier, tech companies had come together in the Open Internet Coalition, and the advocacy groups have worked under SavetheInternet.com, which is also led by Free Press. Both groups have previously called for a national broadband policy which would include 'Net neutrality provisions.

"The Internet was designed and built to carry anything digital. It doesn't have a specific application, and therefore it has lots of them," said Vint Cerf, Google's chief technology evangelist and one of the architects of the Internet, who was also on hand to stump for the cause.

[cob:Special_Report]"The consequence of that is the business models that are associated with the Internet don't match the business models of single-purpose networks," such as cable and telephone service. "And therein lies the real conundrum."

"We think the Net needs to be open, accessible, affordable," he added. "All those things are heartland for Google."

From a public interest perspective, the argument for government-mandated universal broadband is that uneven deployment creates a digital divide. In their more high-minded appeals, the presenters talked of Internet access as a fundamental right.

"Why Internet for all? I think Internet access is required for full participation in society today," said Robin Chase, CEO of the consulting group Meadow Networks and another InternetforEveryone backer. "I admit that it's not as basic as water, but it's definitely as basic as hot water."