Politicians battle over network neutrality

JP Leider

Network neutrality is the latest rallying cry for politicians and special interest groups on both sides of the aisle.

While net neutrality is inherently technology-oriented, the basic idea behind it is simple: in a net-neutral world, all consumers have equal access to information on the Internet, with speed of access limited only by their Internet connection.

In a non-neutral world, proponents of network neutrality argue, service providers and those that control infrastructure would be able throttle the flow of data to and from nonaffiliated sites and control access based on ability to pay.

Yet instead of a discussion about anti-competitive practices, the debate has fallen into a gray area, especially in Washington – it is now as much about the future of the Internet as the present.

Both the House and Senate dealt with net neutrality in past months, but little movement has been made. Sen. Ted Stevens’ (R-Alaska) large communications bill has the best chance to move, although many Democrats oppose the bill as they criticize its network neutrality language as being too weak.

While most consumers use the Internet by surfing or checking e-mail, which take little bandwidth, Internet consumption is trending toward high-bandwidth uses, like video delivery and peer-to-peer file transferring.

Experts say the Internet won’t be able to handle mainstream video viewing online. An investment in more infrastructure would then become a requisite of satisfying demand.

Enter private industry’s idea of a multitiered Internet – which they argue already exists to a certain extent. In addition to paying for a broadband or dial-up service, consumers would theoretically pay for a faster connection to the sites and services they desire.

Ben Scott, policy director of the media-oriented lobbying and outreach organization Free Press, said that although some separate the network neutrality debate into two categories – anticompetitive practices and the idea of a multitiered Internet – it is actually one issue.

“Imagine what it looks like when you create a multitiered Internet – you create a fast quality of service for people who pay a lot of money,” he said. “Essentially you’re creating Internet that’s best for those who can pay the most.”

In a system without expanded infrastructure, Scott said, that would mean those who cannot pay the most would have a degraded quality of service.

It’s important to distinguish between consumer tiers and those that would be on the Internet itself, Scott said.

“We’re each buying different amounts of bandwidth, but once we pay our fee and get online, it’s the same quality of access,” he said. “No one decides which Web site goes fast, which goes slow.”

One of the most contested issues of the network neutrality debate is the idea that large companies could pay to promote the quality of access to their site, which could leave small businesses in the dust.

Economics sophomore Ryann Streicher said she is confused about the network neutrality issue.

Streicher said she doesn’t want to see government regulation of the Internet, but also doesn’t like the idea of monopolies.

“We don’t want monopolies on the Internet; we want free, fair information and it should be a fair playing field for all Internet sites,” she said.

Scott Cleland, an Internet analyst and chairman of e-forum NetCompetition.org, said net neutrality is a “bogus issue.”

Special interest groups are using network neutrality to rally people to their respective causes, he said, and it is “unsubstantiated, outrageous fearmongering.”

Proponents of net neutrality “are proposing that everyone is guilty until proven innocent, that everybody should be regulated, including free services, new entrants and individuals because of something that might happen, but hasn’t happened in the past,” he said.

Should industry choose to expand infrastructure without a regulated Internet, Cleland said, there would be no blocking or degrading of service, although new, faster, specialized service would not be free – “just like if you want a broadband, you pay more than dial-up.”

“The net is a very unequal place because people have unequal needs, means and wants,” he said.

While some worry an Internet without neutrality could leave the poor with no or deficient access, it could prove just the opposite.

Alok Gupta, department chairman and Carlson School of Management professor of Information and Decision Sciences, said services that are not free now can be provided for free should companies be able to charge for services that require a higher level of access.

“You can not only have more incentives for investment, but you can actually increase social welfare by providing multiple levels of access,” he said.

The real danger in this area is if media companies merge with infrastructure companies, he said.

Implementation of a multitiered system requires some thoughtfulness, Gupta said, as legislators cannot let companies do whatever they want.

“If the network slows down because of high level of activity, that is natural; but purposeful degradation of services should not be allowed,” he said. “That’s the real legislative issue. That’s something we need laws about which we don’t have right now – not that it should be illegal to provide differential services.”