House Takes Up Net Neutrality Debate

A House subcommittee held a hearing today to consider legislation that would codify broad principles intended to prevent Internet service providers (ISPs) from slowing or degrading the delivery of certain content over their networks.

Once again, all sides of the Net Neutrality debate lined up to stake their positions while the House debated the latest bill addressing how traffic on ISPs should be treated.

At this morning’s hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, ISPs warned that Net neutrality legislation could slow broadband deployment by imposing heavy regulations that would create uncertainties in the business model.

“The weak state of the economy is front page news,” said Walter McCormick, president and CEO of the U.S. Telecom Association. “But one of the bright spots is broadband,” he added, warning that the law could put a “chill” on further investment in the sector.

Both McCormick and Kyle McSlarrow, president and CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, argued that the absence of regulation had allowed the Internet to prosper, and that supporters of the bill still had not demonstrated that a real problem exists.

Ed Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, introduced the bill in February with Chip Pickering, a Republican from Mississippi.

Called the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, the bill would write into law the four baseline principles that the Federal Communications Commission drafted in 2005 about fairness in how Internet traffic is treated by ISPs, and charge the agency with holding a series of summits around the country to investigate the matter.

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Supporters of Net Neutrality legislation, which include groups as far-ranging as the Christian Coalition and the Writers Guild of America, commonly cite broadband provider Comcast’s throttling of traffic over the peer-to-peer (P2P) site BitTorrent as an example of why Net Neutrality legislation is necessary. The practice came to light last fall and prompted an FCC investigation into ISP’s practices regarding network management that is still ongoing.

In general, the debate over the issue often splits along the party lines as well as debates about free markets vs. regulation, and whether excessive regulation of broadband providers will hinder innovation and providers’ ability to invest in high speed networks.

Markey’s previous attempt to push through Net neutrality legislation was shot down by a Republican majority in June 2006.

During introductory remarks today on the hearing, the first since Markey’s bill was introduced, members of the subcommittee expressed mixed opinions, again split largely on party lines.

The bill under discussion would impose less stringent requirements on the ISPs, however, and the change in the partisan complexion of Congress in the last two years could give it a better chance in a floor vote.

Next page: Managing piracy with Net Neutrality?

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Nearly everyone in the debate agreed that ISPs have the right to manage their networks to ensure that their general level of service to subscribers is not degraded by downloaders who suck up an inordinate amount of the ISP’s bandwidth.

Within the boundaries of reasonable network management, however, opinions vary about the impact the so-called bandwidth hogs have on the overall effectiveness of the network. There is also broad disagreement over what portion of network traffic utilizes the P2P architecture, with estimates ranging from in excess of 80 percent to below 40 percent.

Any discussion of P2P traffic raises the question of piracy. The bill distinguishes between lawful and unlawful Internet traffic, giving ISPs the right to block illegal downloads, the big record labels have come out against Net neutrality legislation.

At today’s hearing, Mitch Bainwol, Chairman and CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America, told the lawmakers that piracy had brought the music industry to the brink of crisis, and that legislation could not solve the problem quickly enough. Instead, he argued, the record industry needed to work together with the ISPs to combat privacy through unregulated network management.

Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, a public interest group that has been leading the charge for Net neutrality legislation, urged against framing the discussion around piracy. Nothing in the bill would prevent ISPs from blocking pirated downloads, spam, child pornography or any other form of illegal content, just as they are free to do so now.

But Scott and other supporters of the bill warned against a non-neutral Internet where ISPs could sign exclusive or preferential deals with content owners or Web merchants promising favorable delivery of their own traffic while unfairly disadvantaging the competition.

The concern that independent content producers or startup ventures would be fighting an uphill battle for Internet distribution against larger incumbents.

When asked about the business appeal of such side deals, McCormick said that he was not aware of any in the past, but said that “It would be a mistake to prohibit innovative partnerships.”

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