Monday, April 24, 2006

"Net Neutrality" - What Does It Mean, What Do We Need To Do, & Why The Rush?

Don't let Congress ruin the Internet
Days before a congressional committee is set to vote on an overhaul of the nation's telecommunications policy, a broad coalition of media, consumer and Internet groups has organized behind a dramatic tagline: "Save the Internet."

Dozens of organizations ranging from the conservative-to-libertarian Gun Owners of America to the liberal group to the American Library Association, have just launched a Web site under the "Save the Internet" banner.

"Whenever you see groups on the far left and the far right joining together over what Congress is getting ready to do, it's my experience that whatever Congress is getting ready to do is generally unconstitutional," said Craig Fields, Director of Internet Operations for Gun Owners of America.
"The fight for Internet freedom is now being waged in earnest," said Tim Karr, campaign director for Free Press, a media reform organization that opposes large media companies and organized the coalition. "On one side you have the public...on the other side you have the nation's largest telephone and cable companies, who have aligned with some in Congress to strip the Internet of the First Amendment."
Congress is pushing a law that would abandon the Internet's First Amendment -- a principle called "Network neutrality" that prevents companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast from deciding which Web sites work best for you -- based on what site pays them the most. Your local library shouldn’t have to outbid Barnes & Noble for the right to have its Web site open quickly on your computer.

Net Neutrality allows everyone to compete on a level playing field and is the reason that the Internet is a force for economic innovation, civic participation and free speech. If the public doesn't speak up now, Congress will cave to a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign by telephone and cable companies that want to decide what you do, where you go, and what you watch online.

This isn’t just speculation.
Large telephone and cable companies have argued against the need to put such principles into law, saying they're not interested in blocking sites or services but deserve the right to charge extra for such a "fast lane" to make their investments in bandwidth-hogging services and new technologies economically viable. Broadband providers have been spending billions to run fiber or faster links to American homes and businesses.

We've already seen what happens elsewhere when the Internet's gatekeepers get too much control. Last year, Canada's version of AT&T -- Telus -- blocked their Internet customers from visiting a Web site sympathetic to workers with whom Telus was negotiating. And Shaw, a major Canadian cable company, charges an extra $10 a month to subscribers who dare to use a competing Internet telephone service.

Net neutrality is a philosophy supported by Internet content providers such as Google, Microsoft and that would prohibit broadband providers from prioritizing certain types of Web traffic--such as streaming video or their own preferred content. How this would affect you.

Why Now?
The latest version of a telecommunications reform bill, expected to go to a full committee vote in the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee this week, doesn't go far enough to ensure Net neutrality provisions.

At an initial vote on that bill just before Congress' spring recess, a quartet of Democrats failed to secure passage of an amendment that said any content provider must be awarded bandwidth "with equivalent or better capability than the provider extends to itself or affiliated parties, and without the imposition of any charge." The Save the Internet Coalition said it hoped such an amendment would be more successful at the upcoming vote.

The updated bill, dubbed "Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancements Act of 2006" is sponsored by Representative and House Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas), Representative and Chairman of Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Representative Charles Pickering (R-Miss.), and Representative Bobby Rush (D-Ill.). The bill is focused on video-franchise reform and was first introduced to Congress in late March 2006.

The bill would require the Federal Communications Commission to vet all complaints of violations of the FCC's own Net neutrality principles within 90 days. It would also give the FCC the power to levy fines of up to $500,000 per violation.

The bill also contained explicit language denying the FCC the authority to make new rules on Net neutrality. Democrats and Net neutrality supporters have charged that lack of enforcement power would mean the FCC would be unable to deal with the topic flexibly.

The FCC's broad principles, which appeared in a document released last summer, don't protect against the kind of discrimination that Internet content providers fear could take hold, said Gigi Sohn, president of the advocacy group Public Knowledge. Those principles say that consumers should be able to access lawful content and run applications of their choice and connect whichever lawful devices they wish to the networks they use.

"You could have a system where I might be able to get my Vonage service but because Verizon has its own voice over Internet protocol service, they may degrade my Vonage service," she said. "So technically I could get a degraded Vonage service, still in keeping with principles, but I'm accessing a degraded service, and that's why a non-discrimination principle must be put in the law."

"This is legislation that's being rushed through Congress on the wings of large cable and telephone companies," Karr said. "Our effort is to raise public awareness with Americans across the spectrum."

In various bids to raise public awareness, the Coalition and its members are interacting with the House of Representatives, particularly members of the Energy and Commerce Committee, who will mark up the bill later this week. The Coalition is asking people to send letters to local newspapers to bring the issue out into the public eye, and has also organized a team of bloggers to bring the issue to the online community.

"We're also organizing a rally that will take place on Capitol Hill to make all members of Congress aware that the public voice cannot be ignored," Karr said. "The amount of money spent on the Hill to influence, by telecom companies, needs to be countered by volume—the volumes of Americans concerned with Internet freedoms."

You got the power - go make noise.

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