- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 7, 2008

What is “net neutrality”? What is “network management”? How does the United States ensure continued innovation on the Internet? Is there a problem that needs fixing?

House lawmakers mulled these questions yesterday at a hearing for the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008. Aside from a consensus that copyrights should be enforced and child pornography should be blocked, there was little agreement among supporters and critics on the terminology and definition of the problem, let alone a prescription.

At issue was the question of how much discretion Internet-service providers (ISPs) should have in managing the flow of Web traffic over their networks. At times of peak congestion, ISPs say network engineers need to slow some traffic in order to optimize the overall flow across their networks. This has involved slowing access to peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing technology, a move ISPs like Comcast Corp. have defended by saying the effect of slowing such traffic is barely noticeable.

But advocates of net neutrality say all types of Web traffic should be treated equally. They see a future in which ISPs will discriminate against certain applications or users in favor of others, perhaps even charging more money for unfettered access. They point to an ongoing Federal Communications Commission investigation into allegations that Comcast blocked downloads of the King James Bible using P2P file-sharing technology BitTorrent Inc.

“This debate is not over whether carriers can or cannot perform network management,” said Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet.

“The question is whether in the name of network management, policy-makers permit carriers to act in unreasonable, anti-competitive fashion,” he said.

There is currently no law mandating net neutrality. The FCC in 2005 adopted a policy statement affirming the principle that consumers should have access to the lawful content and applications of their choice.

The bill, introduced by Mr. Markey and Rep. Charles W. “Chip” Pickering Jr., Mississippi Republican, instructs the FCC to conduct a proceeding on the matter and to report back to Congress on the state of broadband Internet access. It also creates a national broadband policy that maintains “the freedom to use for lawful purposes broadband telecommunications networks, including the Internet, without unreasonable interference from or discrimination by network operators.”

But Walter B. McCormick Jr., president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Telecom Association, questioned the meaning of the policy in his testimony before the committee.

“Would it be ‘unreasonably discriminatory’ for a network operator to construct and manage its networks to assure the reliability of a health care application? A personal security application? What is and is not allowed? No one will, or can, know until the FCC defines these terms,” Mr. McCormick said.

Asked when Mr. Markey hopes to bring the bill up for a vote, a spokeswoman said no vote has been scheduled.

Channel Surfing runs Wednesdays. E-mail krowland@washingtontimes.com.

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