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Net Neutrality Back in Spotlight

With broadband networks grabbing attention over text-messaging, content-blocking and traffic-limiting practices, the network neutrality issue is getting some new traction in Washington, with calls for hearings and campaigns for FCCaction.

Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) two weeks ago called on the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) to open new hearings into recent allegations of the blocking of services by cable and phone networks. That followed a letter to House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) from computer companies like Google, eBay and YouTube, asking for similar hearings.

Dorgan and Snowe had yet to hear back from Inouye at presstime. “The fact that they sent the formal letter [to the chairman] requesting the hearings makes the point that the issue is back in play,” said a Dorgan staffer. “It had kind of gone into the 'other things are happening' category,” he added, “but it is back big time.”

That may be wishful thinking from the office of one of network neutrality's big fans on the Hill, given the crowded calendars for the relevant House and Senate committees, but a staffer for Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) says the issue is definitely on his radar and that there will be hearings, though given the upcoming holiday breaks, not before the end of the year.

Most of the hullabaloo has been generated by incidents involving Comcast, Verizon and AT&T. Most recently, Comcast, the nation's largest cable operator, was allegedly interfering with peer-to-peer file sharing.

Comcast said that it did not block access to any Websites or online applications, but has said before that it uses network management techniques to deal with customers whose bandwidth use could impede the “good Internet experience” of other customers. That could include calling extremely heavy bandwidth users—Comcast has said it would be the equivalent of someone sending 18,000 e-mails per hour, every hour, every day—and asking them either to cut back or switch to a business-class service so they wouldn't slow down the network for the rest of the residential users.

Other incidents that have riled network neutrality backers include Verizon blocking a group text message from a pro-abortion group (it later allowed the messages through), and AT&T blocking lyrics critical of President Bush from a Webcast of a Pearl Jam concert. AT&T said that was a mistake by an outside contractor monitoring content.

Obama jumps in

Two weeks ago, Democratic presidential candidate and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama said he would make instituting network neutrality a priority in an Obama administration. Currently, network neutrality is a guideline, with the FCC saying that networks should hold to certain principles of nondiscrimination in access to Internet services or applications.

“Facebook, MySpace, Google might not have been started if you had not had a level playing field for whoever has the best idea,” Obama told an MTV online forum. “I want to maintain that basic principle in how the Internet functions, and so as president I'm going to make sure that is the principle that my FCC commissioners are applying as we move forward.”

Obama may not be the Democratic front-runner for the big job. But having weighed in on media ownership, network neutrality and even the writers' strike—he backs the writers—Obama has been out front on media issues, and last week at least one poll was showing that Hillary Clinton's lead had been cut by more than a third.

But network neutrality has an ally in Sen. Clinton as well. Along with Obama, she is a co-sponsor of a bill introduced at the beginning of the year by Dorgan and Snowe that would mandate nondiscriminatory access to online content, applications or services., the poster activist for pushback on the media, said it was calling on the other presidential candidates to match Obama's pledge. Communications Director Adam Green pointed out that in addition to Obama and Clinton, candidates Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich, Bill Richardson and even Republican Mike Huckabee are all net neutrality supporters.

A Biden staffer confirmed his support of network neutrality, but could not say whether or not he would take the Obama pledge. Calls to the other campaigns yielded promises to find out whether the candidates would also make network neutrality a priority, but no responses by presstime.

Green expects a House bill to be introduced soon similar to Dorgan's; it will be a “very high energy moment for the issue,” he said.

Advocacy organization Free Press, emboldened by the sudden rekindled attention, and doing some of the kindling itself, doesn't want to wait for a change in administration to get Washington re-engaged in the network neutrality debate. The group filed a complaint with the FCC, asking the commission to step in.

E-mail blast

Free Press also created a template for a mass e-mailing from its members to shake their collective fists: “The Internet is a vital engine for economic growth, civic participation and free speech. We simply can't allow corporate gatekeepers to smother these democratic communications by discriminating against new technologies, secretly interfering with Internet traffic and stifling innovation,” says the “your name here” forme-mail.

The Hands Off the Internet coalition also weighed in last week; it wrote FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, urging the FCC to investigate Comcast. But the coalition—it includes AT&T—is against network neutrality legislation and was essentially reminding the FCC that it already had the authority to investigate under its open access guidelines, an authority Martin noted by remarking that there was not a need for mandated network neutrality legislation.

And Pearl Jam is not the only band in the midst of the network neutrality fight. The Future of Music Coalition, which fears that singers and songwriters will lose access to listeners if networks charge content providers a fee to make their sites load more easily, held its most recent Rock the Net performance Oct. 30 in Seattle with singer/songwriter Matt Nathanson. “It was sold out,” said Communications Director Casey Rae-Hunter.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.