Magazine article Information Today

Net Neutrality: The Internet's World War

Magazine article Information Today

Net Neutrality: The Internet's World War

Article excerpt

What would unite the Christian Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)?

Two words--Net Neutrality. This is a government regulation to ensure that broadband service providers do not divide the Internet into a "fast lane" for Web sites and companies that pay a premium and a "slow lane" for companies that do not. Until August 2005, Internet providers were banned by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from downgrading connection speeds to certain sites for financial reasons, but now telecommunications companies can prioritize or block Web sites based on who pays the highest premium. Such actions could change the landscape of the Internet. For instance, Yahoo! could pay major broadband providers to block Google, shifting the balance of power to those who are willing to pay the most.

A Solution in Search of a Problem

In the past year, Verizon, BellSouth Corp., and SBC have all hinted that they have plans to "create an express lane on the information superhighway," said Mike McCurry, a former White House press secretary. McCurry is now co-chairman of Hands off the Internet, an Arlington, Va.-based coalition of some 24 organizations who oppose Net Neutrality.

Hands off the Internet is one of the players in the hotly contested debate on government regulation of the Internet. "There are people who believe that [Net Neutrality] is a sacrosanct principle that defines the Internet as it is today," said McCurry. "There are others who believe that trying to regulate that principle into law would create vast unintended consequences that would thwart the Internet of the future."

Critics of Net Neutrality argue that continued costs for technological advances in the Internet may become prohibitively expensive if broadband companies are not permitted to charge large companies for bandwidth. Consumers may be forced to choose between higher subscription fees and inferior quality of service. "Some 80 percent of our bandwidth is used by 13 percent of our users," said Bill McCloskey, a spokesman for BellSouth. "As the new, bigger, faster Internet is built, someone has to pay for it ... so the options are that the end user could pay for very high-speed bandwidth, or the companies that make money from providing the [content] could pay for part of it."

McCurry estimated that subscription fees for residential users might increase by more than $100 per month if Net Neutrality legislation is passed. By contrast, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., predicted that high-speed Internet rates would decrease as much as $40 per month, assuming that Congress defeats Net Neutrality legislation.

"The result [of Net Neutrality legislation] will be higher prices for residential consumers," said McCurry. "The reason is that all the investments in building a broadband network fall to the consumers." By contrast, if Net Neutrality legislation is defeated, "consumers will get better service," said McCloskey. "They'll have [online] gaming that's playable, video that's watchable, and IP telephony that's audible."

In a recent blog entry on Hands off the Internet's Web site, McCurry and Internet attorney Christopher Wolf compared the Internet equality of Net Neutrality to the vision of equality in Kurt Vonnegut's novella Harrison Bergeron. In Vonnegut's dystopia, the intelligent people are required to wear earphones that disrupt their mental capabilities to dumb everyone down to the same level; everyone is equal, but everyone is also handicapped. Net Neutrality would create Internet equality, critics argue, but instead of creating a "fast lane" and a "slow lane" for Internet connections, everyone would be in the slow lane.

Net Neutrality Is Internet Freedom

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., disagrees that Net Neutrality legislation would hinder progress. An outspoken advocate of Net Neutrality in Congress, Markey favors government regulation. "The Network Neutrality rules I have been offering are the same ones that protected the Internet from its inception until last year when the FCC took the rules off the books," he said. …

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