CDT Calls For 'Net Neutrality' Protections

As the Senate Commerce Committee prepares to take up "Net neutrality," the advocacy group Center for Democracy and Technology Tuesday called for new laws banning Internet service providers from discriminating against content providers and other Web publishers.

"After careful consideration," wrote the organization in a report released Tuesday, "legislation is necessary to ensure that the Internet's current level of openness--with all its resulting benefits for free expression and innovation--is retained."

The CDT is asking the Senate to pass laws that would prohibit Internet service providers from blocking access to Web sites, or for charging different rates to different Web publishers. The group argues that such rules are necessary to maintain the Internet as an open, accessible medium. The current "neutral" regime, states the report, "permits the greatest level of flexibility for new uses of the Internet," and has "led to an astounding array of innovative technologies," such as "Open SSL," Voice-over-IP, Web-based e-mail, and instant messaging.

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Currently, no laws specifically ban Internet service providers from blocking certain Web sites or charging different publishers different rates; however, the FCC is on record as endorsing neutrality in principle. As the issue has become more high-profile in the last several months, a host of politicians, celebrities, small business owners--including U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and TV star Alyssa Milano--have come out in favor of passing legislation that would guarantee neutrality.

In its report, the CDT said that the growth of broadband has made such laws necessary--largely because the relative scarcity of broadband providers gives them far more power than dial-up providers ever had. "In the narrowband Internet, there were once an estimated seven or eight thousand Internet service providers offering dial-up access--which meant that if one ISP lacked openness or discriminated against content or services selected by a user, the user could easily switch ISPs and almost certainly find one that offered nondiscriminatory access to all Internet content," stated the report.

The group added that market pressures alone won't necessarily preserve neutrality. "The neutral characteristics of the Internet did not arise through the commercial marketplace, and there is no guarantee that market forces alone will ensure their preservation," stated the report.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation Thursday will take up a telecom reform bill passed by the House two weeks ago that will allow telecoms to compete with cable companies by offering video. An amendment by Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey to require Internet service providers to act neutrally toward publishers--that is, not charge tiered fees or block access--was shot down 269-152. Instead, the House bill gives the FCC authority to enforce net neutrality, principles and to fine companies up to $500,000 for offenses.

At present, Internet service providers usually follow neutrality principles. But executives at some Internet service providers have indicated that could soon change; they have floated proposals to charge some Web publishers higher fees based on usage, or charge publishers more for faster transmission to consumers.

Some broadband providers argue that highly trafficked Web publishers use more than their fair share of bandwidth and therefore, should be required to pay more.

But supporters of Net neutrality argue that consumers already pay access fees to receive content. In addition, they say, Internet service providers might decide to prevent consumers from accessing competitors' sites. Executives from Vonage and Google earlier this year took such concerns to the Senate. "Imagine if the electric company could dictate which toaster or television you plugged into the wall," Jeffrey A. Citron, chairman and CEO of Vonage, argued at a February hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation.

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