Open Internet Coalition Opens New Network-Neutrality Front

The network-neutrality issue is raising its hydra-head once again, at least if some big-name Internet companies have anything to do with it.

The Open Internet Coalition asked House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) to hold hearings on what it said are recent "patterns of anti-consumer activities" by telephone and cable companies.

In a letter to Dingell, the coalition -- which includes Google, eBay, YouTube, TiVo, EarthLink and Public Knowledge, although no longer Microsoft, Yahoo and some other big names -- said those actions call into question network arguments "that rules to protect consumers and preserve an open and interconnected Internet are unnecessary or unlawful."

"I am writing to ask that you conduct hearings to explore the activities of the telephone companies and consider legislation that would protect a fundamental tenet of the Internet," said coalition executive director Markham C. Erickson, "which is to allow citizens to communicate without threat of censorship or other anti-consumer behavior from a handful of gatekeepers.”

The issue of network neutrality dominated the D.C. landscape in 2006, with millions of dollars spent on lobbying campaigns. Ultimately, a network-neutrality mandate was not adopted by Congress, but neither was a video-franchise-reform bill submarined by the debate, although the Federal Communications Commission eventually reformed the process through its own rulemaking.

The letter followed reports last week that Verizon Communications blocked text messaging from a pro-abortion group and AT&T's earlier blocking of anti-Bush lyrics in a Webcast of a Pearl Jam concert. The letter also cited reports of new AT&T user agreements that allow it to terminate service for conduct that “damages the name or reputation of AT&T or its affiliates” and Comcast for cutting off without warning users who were "using too much capacity."

Verizon reportedly reversed its decision and let the text messages through after the move became public. AT&T said of the Pearl Jam incident at the time that the blocking was an error by a subcontracted content monitor.

As for the Comcast and AT&T user policies, AT&T said in a statement that it "respects its subscribers’ rights to voice their opinions and concerns over any matter they wish. We do not terminate customers’ service solely because a customer speaks negatively about AT&T."

The company also said the policy was not new. "As a result of our recent mergers, we have simply incorporated the existing language from the AT&T Yahoo! High Speed Internet terms of service into the terms of service for our legacy WorldNet and BellSouth customers. The language is consistent with that of previous documents for those companies and is equally consistent with former AT&T and its legacy companies’ policies."

Comcast spokesman Charlie Douglas said the company does not explicitly inform customers of bandwidth constraints, but it does contact a fraction of a percent of users and gives them the choice of cutting their usage or upgrading to a T-1 line so that they do not negatively impact the service of other residential customers.

“The customers who are notified of excessive use typically and repeatedly consume exponentially more bandwidth than an average residential user," Douglas said, "which would include, for example, the equivalent of sending 256,000 photos per month, or sending 13 million e-mails every month (or 18,000 e-mails every hour, every day, all month). In these rare instances, Comcast’s policy is to proactively contact the customer via phone to work with them and address the issue or help them to select a more appropriate commercial-grade Comcast product."

Copies of the letter were also sent to the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate Commerce Committee and House Judiciary Committee.

John Eggerton

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.