William Jackson | Keep the Net neutral

Cybereye'commentary: The bandwidth battles

William Jackson

The Internet has become a utility, an infrastructure that is not merely useful but provides an essential public service. As such, it deserves some federal protections.

Our national security strategies recognize the Internet as a critical infrastructure that the government has a responsibility to defend even though most of it is in private hands. Its commercial operators argue that they are entitled to run it for their own benefit without government interference.

The issue of Internet regulation is again before the Federal Communications Commission, which is considering a petition arguing that 'the practice by broadband service providers of degrading peer-to-peer traffic violates the FCC's Internet Policy Statement' intended to give consumers unfettered access to Internet resources. In question is the practice by Comcast, one of the country's largest broadband providers, of interfering with downloads from legal peer-to-peer services.

Comcast, after years of denial, now admits the activity but said it is covered by a footnote in the FCC policy that allows for reasonable network management. If we don't squelch the bandwidth hogs doing peer-to-peer downloads, there won't be enough bandwidth to go around, the company said.

But Free Press, a media policy think tank, and seven other consumer advocacy and academic organizations disagree. In a petition for a declaratory judgment, they said intentionally degrading the performance of an application by blocking or slowing the traffic is not covered by the network management exception.

If it were, 'the Policy Statement would mean nothing,' the group said in its filing.

Comcast, remember, also is a cable TV provider. Peer-to-peer services such as BitTorrent, which Comcast has been interfering with, are a way of delivering competing video content via the Internet.

That is the crux of the problem. There now is little distinction between ownership of the networks that make up the Internet and the content they deliver. The country has an interest in the availability of the former, and the corporations have an interest in maximizing their profit from the latter.

A number of industry and business groups have weighed in, coming down squarely on the side of the service providers' right to run their networks as they see fit.

'Ultimately, the Internet is too slow and needs to evolve into or be superseded by something better,' wrote Clyde Wayne Crews Jr., the Competitive Enterprise Institute's vice president for policy. Something better can only come from an unfettered industry free to profit any way it can, industry argues.

The Progress and Freedom Foundation compared delaying peer-to-peer traffic to a busy signal, 'the implication of which is not that the communication may never be completed but only that it must await an open circuit.' But phone companies are not allowed to hand out busy signals based on whether they approve of the number I am calling or what I am saying.

Industry's theory is that, given enough time, market forces will push industry to act in the public interest. But industry's interests are not the same as the public's. Industry protects the short-term bottom line for shareholders. The public's interests are protected by government.

Government does not always do a good job of this, but industry does not do it at all.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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