Net Neutrality Debate Heats Up - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

06/06/06

Net Neutrality Debate Heats Up

Who controls the internet? There's a battle brewing on Capitol Hill right now over what they call net neutrality. It's about government regulation online. Some say too much stifles competition. Others say too little will let the companies who provide internet service dictate what you see online.

Online educator David Taylor of Skidaway Island is concerned for the future of the internet. He says ongoing telecommunications reform efforts to scale back government regulation threaten to leave the internet up for grabs to big corporations, which could control what you see online and how fast it moves.

"In terms of competition, I happen to believe that allowing these corporations to take over more and more, to dictate more and more of our content reduces competition," he said. "Look at what you've got on cable. Do you want the same people who determine what you see on cable to determine what you see on your computer screen?"

The folks at NetCompetion.org say the free market is the best way to develop the business and culture of the internet.

"That's where the phenomenal growth of the internet came, was because the government didn't regulate it," said the group's chairman, Scott Cleland, in a telephone interview. "It got out of the way and put it into competition and free market."

But Taylor and others active on SaveTheInternet.com say pending legislation could threaten online freedom, particularly the Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement (COPE) Act, due for a vote soon in the House.

Taylor and others are calling for laws to protect what's called net neutrality, which would force internet service providers to treat all content the same.

"Would you like to pick up your phone someday and have someone tell you whom you could talk to, how long you could talk, and how well you could hear them?" asked Taylor. "If COPE passes, that's what's going to happen. On your computer screen."

"What net neutrality is really about is a vision of a socialized internet, where the government controls it and the government manages it," said Cleland. "And the internet has worked marvelously, because it has been free and open and it has been driven by consensus and the economic interest of everybody involved."

But Taylor disagrees that corporations foster innovation. "Innovation has been the watchword of the internet, and without that equality, without treating all content providers equally, you're going to favor one-tier content providers," he said. "What they want to say, what they think gives them the most profit."

"That is a free market," Cleland told us. "And what this is all about is Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and eBay want corporate welfare. They want a special, wholesale regulated rate of bandwidth....this is special interest legislation that wants a special deal."

What some call necessary to protect our free speech, others call a solution looking for a problem.

This is just scratching the surface of a very complex story. There are at least four bills working their ways through Congress right now that address these issues, and people we spoke with on both sides want you to get involved.

Here's the pending legislation:

S.2686, the Communications, Consumer's Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act (Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska)

and

H.R.5252, Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act (Rep. Tom Barton, R-Texas Dist. 6)

Both address video service, emergency services, broadband deployment and more. Critics claim they do nothing or too little to address net neutrality, the advocates of which are calling for legislation like the following:

S. 2917, Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2006 (Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine)

H.R. 5273, Network Neutrality Act of 2006 (Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts Dist. 7)

These bills specifically address net neutrality, requiring all broadband providers to treat all internet content equally, and not offer preferential treatment to any content provider for a premium. Supporters say it's necessary to protect small businesses and consumers from limited access to one another.

Critics say such laws would be in response to fear rather than any actual cases of ISPs blocking or slowing access to content. Some say such legislation could stifle infrastructure development and drive broadband costs up.

Bills can be looked up by number at:

http://thomas.loc.gov/

Here are the locations of the groups we mentioned:

http://www.netcompetition.org/

http://www.savetheinternet.com/

Reported by: Charles Gray, cgray@wtoc.com

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