In the inflamed rhetoric of network neutrality, the debates are often cast as broadband providers versus content providers, big companies versus even larger companies and regulation of the Internet versus non-regulation.
For U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, these arguments oversimplify the issue.
Speaking at the Third Annual State of the Internet Conference Wednesday, the Virginia Democrat told a packed Capitol Hill hotel meeting room, "We can't advance content innovation at the expense of network innovation. We need both kinds of innovation."
The conference, sponsored by the Congressional Internet Caucus, brought together policy makers, think-tank mavens, academics and Capitol Hill staffers for a one-day conference on technology issues facing the new 110th Congress.
The top issue: network neutrality. "It is a large, unresolved debate," said Boucher, who supported a defeated network neutrality amendment to a telecom reform bill approved by the House of Representatives last year. "The Internet must remain open and accessible to all, but we don't want to hobble innovation within the network."
One concern is whether networking providers such as Verizon and AT&T would charge content and application providers extra fees based on their bandwidth usage. Critics say the idea amounts to price discrimination. Attendees here said there's more to consider in the debate.
While the Republican-controlled House passed a telecom reform bill sans network neutrality in 2006, the Senate failed to move on the legislation.
"Network neutrality kept it from going to the Senate floor," Boucher said. "Until we resolve this, compromise between the content providers and broadband providers [will be difficult]."
Breaking down the arguments
In a breakout session focused solely on network neutrality, panel moderator Rob Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation called last year's debate over the issue "overly polarized," with arguments that did not "shed as much light as heat."
Turning to a panel that included Internet pioneers David Reed of M.I.T. and Dave Farber of Carnegie Mellon, along with Columbia University Law School's Tim Wu and Christopher Yoo of Vanderbilt University, Atkinson asked if the Internet is neutral today.
"The Internet is incredibly competitive. There is never neutrality in a competitive environment," said Reed, whose research includes the Internet design principle known as the "end-to-end argument," which discusses the structure and economics of networks.
"Threats to neutrality are all over the architecture, usually at the bottlenecks." Reed said, noting that broadband carriers such as Verizon and AT&T are "only providing a driveway to the Internet." And don't forget that some forms of discrimination already exist on the Internet, such as with spam-blocking techniques.
Yoo took the argument further. "Most ISPs block Port 25 [a haven for spam] and most ISPs are blocking part of ESPN," he said. "[ESPN] is pushing through video, which takes a lot of bandwidth. We have these different problems and people are already blocking." As different users require different things from the network, an "optimal level of standardization" is needed. "Let people try it and if it fails, change the rules," he said.
Academic discussions aside, Atkinson finally asked the question on everybody's mind: would be better to maintain the status quo or for Congress to pass the network neutrality legislation introduced by Senators Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).
The bill, known as the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, would prohibit broadband carriers from discriminatory practices such as pricing in handling traffic from Internet content, application and service providers. The legislation would also require carriers to offer consumers individual broadband service that is not bundled with television or telephone service.
Yoo said there is always risk with change, particularly with a one-size-fits-all bill. Reed also stressed unanticipated consequences. But it was Farber, a networking expert and former chief technologist at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), who helped underscore the challenges that follow federal legislation governing the Internet.
"If you pass a law telling the FCC to enforce its four network neutrality principles, my experience is that they may or may not do it anyway," he said. "When you let them get their hands all over it [the Internet], Congress tends to go ape."
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