Sunday, December 21, 2008

Time to settle net neutrality debate

Time to settle net neutrality debate
By Chris O'Brien
Mercury News


I had lulled myself into believing we were all but done with this whole debate about net neutrality, the notion that service providers must treat all traffic equally.

I mistakenly thought a ruling by the Federal Communications Commission back in September in a case involving Comcast had settled the issue, once and for all.

Silly me.

A story that appeared on The Wall Street Journal's Web site over the weekend and in Monday's paper claimed that Google was asking for preferential treatment from network providers that appeared at odds with its previous support for net neutrality. The article also said that President-elect Barack Obama was backtracking on the issue. And the story reported that Stanford Professor Lawrence Lessig, a leading advocate for a free and open Internet, had "softened" his stance.

The article prompted heated denials from all three.

But while the story may have been off target, it's clear from the subsequent dust-up that the issue of net neutrality is far from settled. The article and the subsequent back-and-forth of blog postings and press releases revealed that some fault lines remain, even among supporters.

So job one for the new FCC under President Obama should be to define and make permanent net neutrality. The FCC should establish clear guidelines for what constitutes acceptable network management. It's in the best interest of service providers, Internet companies and consumers to get this done and move on to other issues.

If net neutrality seems like so much Washington policy wonkishness, well, it's not. As Internet traffic explodes, telecommunications companies like Comcast and AT&T have argued that they're spending vast sums of money on new infrastructure that companies like Google are eating up with their search and video traffic. The service providers would like to charge some companies more to carry certain types of content, or to restrict the amount or type of content to end users to help manage that flow of traffic.

For instance, Comcast was accused of blocking file sharing and peer-to-peer network services for extended periods, uses that generate a heavy amount of traffic. Until the practice was brought to light, confused customers couldn't understand what was happening.

The problem is that this punishes consumers, who face either lower quality service, or higher costs. Telecom companies could essentially set up a toll service, and those costs will get passed on to consumers either directly, in the form of higher broadband costs, or indirectly by companies that are forced to pay more to have their content carried across the Internet.

This is bad for innovation and bad for our wallets.

A few months ago, the FCC ruled that Comcast had engaged in such a practice, a decision that net neutrality supporters hailed for finally creating a precedent. But clearly, confusion remains.

In the Journal story, for instance, Google is apparently asking ISPs for permission to co-locate its servers into their facilities so its content can be physically closer to end users, and thus be delivered more quickly. Companies such as Akamai of Cambridge, Mass., have made big businesses out of providing such services.

Richard Whitt, Google's Washington telecom and media counsel, wrote on the company's public policy blog: "Despite the hyperbolic tone and confused claims in Monday's Journal story, I want to be perfectly clear about one thing: Google remains strongly committed to the principle of net neutrality."

Clearly, some folks thought this ran afoul of net neutrality principles. I'd disagree, since such a service in effect keeps some types of traffic off the Internet and helps reduce congestion.

But that wasn't the only area of dispute. In a blog post, Lessig noted that he had always supported the concept that service providers should be allowed to provide different tiers of service, allowing some companies such as Google to pay more for access to faster networks. Lessig acknowledged that some members of the net neutrality community disagree. Lessig writes: "But the suggestion that the position is 'recent' is baseless. If I'm wrong, I've always been wrong."

With all due respect, he's wrong.

Among those who agree with me is Ben Scott, a policy director for the Free Press, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington. I chatted with Scott on Monday about the Journal story. Scott noted that while Lessig sat on the Free Press board, they had a healthy disagreement on this piece of the puzzle.

"If you create a super tier, and it's a million dollars a month, what happens is that the big guys go in and bid up the price, and it becomes a barrier to entry," Scott said.

Agreed. Clearing up the confusion over such unsettled issues will be good for everyone. Scott also noted that with Obama coming in, codifying net neutrality has become a question of "not if, but when."

The answer should be sooner, not later.

Contact Chris O'Brien at or (415) 298-0207. Follow on Twitter at sjcobrien and read his blog at

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