(CNSNews.com) – Two groups of House Democrats that are not always on the same political page have joined forces to oppose federal regulation of Internet traffic currently under consideration by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The FCC is moving forward with plans to approve “net neutrality,” rules that essentially would prohibit Internet service providers from charging add-on fees to certain Web sites for accessing their networks. Advocates of net neutrality argue that without new rules, a duopoly of cable and telephone companies can “discriminate” against certain Web content.
But 72 House Democrats, all members of either the centrist Blue Dog Caucus or the more liberal Congressional Black Caucus, signed a letter to the FCC charging that “net neutrality” regulations would stifle competition.
“We remain suspicious of conclusions based on slogans rather than substance, and of policies that restrict and inhibit the very innovation and growth that we all seek to achieve,” the members of each caucus said in a joint letter to the FCC last Thursday.
Opponents of the regulations say the rules would likely slow down the Web, make it tougher to block spam, create the need for more government bureaucrats as new bureaucratic rules tend to require, and discourage investment in broadband technology.
Democrats such as Reps. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Henry Waxman of California have supported the regulation. Republicans have mostly led the opposition, with Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Charles Grassley of Iowa writing a letter to the FCC last week cautioning against the regulation.
But the letter from Democratic House members last week used some of the same arguments Republicans have advanced.
“A decade ago, broadband was a nascent service, and only one percent of U.S. households connected to the Internet through broadband lines,” the letter from Democratic lawmakers said. “Today, by contrast, roughly two-thirds of Americans connect through high speed connections that are available to 95 percent of households.”
Signatories included prominent Democrats such as Reps. Health Shuler of North Carolina, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, Bernie Thompson of Mississippi, Baron Hill of Indiana, Ed Towns of New York, Silvestre Reyes of Texas, and Alcee Hastings of Florida.
“While we have further to go as a nation in extending the benefits of broadband to all, it is our strong belief that continued progress in expanding the reach and capabilities of broadband networks will require the commission to reiterate, and not repudiate, its historic commitment to competition, private investment and a restrained regulatory approach,” the letter continued.
Supporters of net neutrality rules include the left-wing MoveOn.org and the media reform group Free Press. Opponents include the pro-free market group Freedom Works and the conservative Family Research Council.
Primarily, the battle lines are drawn between ISPs such as Verizon and AT&T that want the freedom to charge fees to high volume Web sites to expedite connection speed, and major Web companies such as Google or Amazon.com that have a lot of traffic but want to avoid paying those fees.
The letter from the CBC and the Blue Dogs sparked anger from net neutrality supporters such as Gigi B. Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a liberal advocacy group on digital issues. She accused them of betraying their constituents.
“It’s a pity that 72 members of the Blue Dog Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus are deserting one of the fundamental planks of President Obama’s platform — a free, open and nondiscriminatory Internet,” Sohn said in a statement.
“The people who those members of Congress represent are the most at risk from the closed, controlling Internet that the phone and cable companies want,” Sohn continued.
“The constituents of these members of Congress have the fewest choices of providers and access to the least competition. They have the lowest Internet data speeds; they have the diminished opportunity to use the Web to its fullest potential. They are being betrayed,” she said.
Speaking to the Brookings Institute on Sept. 21, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski stressed the need for net neutrality rules.
“I am convinced that there are few goals more essential in the communications landscape than preserving and maintaining an open and robust Internet,” Genachowski said.
“In view of these challenges and opportunities, and because it is vital that the Internet continue to be an engine of innovation, economic growth, competition and democratic engagement, I believe the FCC must be a smart cop on the beat preserving a free and open Internet,” he added.
But FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell strongly disagreed, saying there is no need for new Internet regulation.
“The premise outlined in Chairman Genachowski’s speech is that the Internet is broken and the government has to fix it,” McDowell told a gathering at the conservative Heritage Foundation last week.
“For the average consumer, are they being frustrated in some way, other than their broadband speed is too slow?” McDowell said. “Can they go to any site and download anything they want? For the vast majority of consumers, the answer is yes.
“So if you want to envision a place where the Internet helps foster democracy, where it helps foster prosperity, where it can be a tool for raising the human condition, in a free and open manner, if you want to envision that, I think that exists today,” he added.
Internet service providers such as Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon Wireless argue that technological innovation is putting more and more pressure on bandwidth capabilities. As more people demand more services, such as streaming video at greater speed, the ISPs have to make more financial investments for Internet infrastructure.
The sites that tend to clog up the information highway the most – those with high volume – are most likely to be asked to pay an add-on fee to the ISP if there are no net neutrality rules.
Instead of passing the costs of those investments to the customer, the big ISPs could ask Google or Microsoft to pay extra for the use of its network. That’s because Google and similar high volume Web sites use more bandwidth than smaller sites. These high volume sites, thus, could slow connections speeds for users accessing other lower-traffic Web sites.
On the other hand, if a net neutrality regulation or law is passed, the ISP could not recoup more of those costs from Google, Microsoft or other tech giants. So the cost of adding lanes to the information highway would be passed on to consumers.
Advocates of net neutrality point to three major instances of what they consider abuse by the cable and telephone companies.
In 2004, the North Carolina telephone company, Madison River Communications, blocked its customers from using the popular Internet telephone service Vonage. Vonage complained to the FCC, and almost immediately the commission stepped in. Madison River paid a $15,000 fine to the FCC to settle the matter and vowed to stop blocking Vonage or any other competitors.
In September 2007, Verizon Wireless rejected a request from the NARAL Pro Choice America for a five-digit “short code.” These codes allow users interested in hearing messages from a business, movement, or politician to sign up and receive free text messages. The reason Verizon gave for the refusal is that it “does not accept issue-oriented (abortion, war, etc.) programs.”
Upon reversing itself, Verizon spokesman Jeffrey Nelson told The New York Times that the policy imposed in this instance resulted from an “incorrect interpretation” of a policy “designed to ward against communications such as anonymous hate messaging and adult materials sent to children.” Nelson said. “The decision to not allow text messaging on an important, though sensitive, public policy issue was incorrect.”
In late 2007, Comcast slowed the traffic for some subscribers who were downloading large files that were clogging the network. BitTorrent, creator of a popular file sharing program, allows users to exchange these big files on the Web. Those big files use a lot of capacity, which slows down other Web traffic.
To tackle this problem, Comcast slowed down the transmission of the big files shared on BitTorrent. This allowed its other traffic to move more quickly, but BitTorrent complained.
Comcast and BitTorrent worked out an agreement in April 2008, without a government solution, which allowed file-sharers to use Comcast’s network and not slow down the service for other users. However, the FCC still ordered Comcast to stop blocking or slowing files. Comcast is appealing the FCC order in federal court.
“The three cases cited time and time again were resolved,” McDowell told CNSNews.com. “There are an incredible number of net communications every day. If we are looking at any misconduct, whether it’s intentional or not, as soon as the spotlight is shined on them, it would go away. We have more and more competition.
“If there is a bad actor out there acting in an anti-competitive way, then consumers would have a choice of other Internet providers,” McDowell added.