Lawmakers struggle with how neutral networks should be

Telecom reform is the top priority of Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. 'We want to get a comprehensive telecom reform bill to the president's desk this year,' Barton said. 'There is no more important issue' to U.S. economic health, he added.

Barton, speaking Wednesday at the Congressional Internet Caucus' State of the Internet Conference, said he hoped to introduce the bill this month. It will have to move quickly to see passage during this session.

'We don't have that many legislative days this year,' he said. 'It's time to stop talking and start working. If we just wait on the Senate, I don't see much happening.'

Reform probably is needed. The telecommunications and Internet industries have evolved quickly in the 10 years since the Telecom Reform Act of 1996, and much of that law is based on policy from the 1930s.

But what Rep. Rich Boucher (D-Va.) called 'perhaps the most controversial issue we will face this year' is unlikely to be addressed in the bill'net neutrality, the issue of how much control network owners will be able to exert over the content they deliver.

Neither Boucher, a co-chairman of the caucus, nor fellow co-chairman Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) took a position on the issue.

And Barton was neutral on neutrality. 'It's pretty tough to conclude what the right policy is on that,' he said.

The argument for legislation on network neutrality is that companies that dominate the networking industry should not be allowed to decide what services they will and won't deliver, or charge additional fees to deliver or give preference to some services.

The argument against such legislation is that business restrictions could have a chilling effect on the networks' investments in broadband access, which lags in the United States.

Goodlatte, in a discussion with Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf, said he was concerned about the possibility of inhibiting innovation and investment in broadband. Cerf, chairman of the board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, said caution is warranted.

'Whether a legislative solution is needed or something else is for me an open question,' he said.

But Cerf said that when consumers pay for Internet access, they have a right to expect unfettered access. And the word of networking companies and cable providers is not good enough for him. 'I don't trust commitments because I'm not sure commitments will be kept,' he added.

Cerf said network service providers should be able to come up with a business model to make money on selling access without controlling content.

The issue of access restrictions might be a sore one for Cerf, who also is chief Internet evangelist for Google Inc., which recently has come under fire for agreeing to filter the service it is making available in China.

'This was not an easy decision for Google,' Cerf said.

The issue was debated for years, but 'it was very hard to ignore about one-fifth of the world's population.

'We believe that having information access, even if it is limited in this way, is better than having no information access,' he said. 'I think it is better if we are there than if we are not.'

The issue of U.S. government intrusion on the Internet also was discussed. Jerry Berman, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, blamed the present administration for what he called 'a growing privacy crisis' that is eroding consumer confidence in the Internet.

'We cannot have privacy if we have a whole regime of secret law in the name of national security,' he said. He blamed the USA Patriot Act and recently revealed warrantless eavesdropping by the National Security Agency for the lack of trust.

'We cannot trust the Internet and consumers cannot trust that they have any privacy rights on the Internet today,' he said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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