Network Neutrality Issue Gaining Momentum

The last few weeks have seen an onslaught of information and criticism involving the Internet in ways that haven’t been seen since the RIAA began filing charges for online music theft. What’s it all about? Network Neutrality, the idea that the Internet should be openly accessible and not privately owned.

With the current outpouring of information, requests for petitions to congress, and television advertisements asking voters to “vote no” on bills concerning the obstruction of Network Neutrality, many people are beginning to wonder what the fuss is about, and why it even matters to them. Thousands of others, including celebrities like singer Moby and actress Alyssa Milano, have begun a campaign against the obstruction of Network Neutrality.

Controversy Within Congress

Since 2005, several Congressional bills have been written and proposed by a variety of Congressmen that would allow Internet access providers to decide what websites their users are allowed to visit. A new House bill recently released would make that kind of restriction punishable by existing Federal Antitrust Laws.

The new bill, called the “Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act”, was endorsed not only by Democrats John Conyers, Zoe Lofgren, and Rick Boucher, but also by Republican Committee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner. The battle between House bills is growing with proposals in both houses of Congress and some serious resistance from hardware makers and lawmakers on the rise.

Some critics claim that “net neutrality” is impossible to define, but supporters promote the idea that broadband providers should not be able to favor one website or Internet service over another. To put it in non-tech terms, the Internet can be viewed as a town. Within this town are dozens of privately owned buildings that serve as businesses, several buildings that offer free services like a library, and hundreds of private homes. Running through this town, connecting each of the buildings, are roads. The roads cannot be privately owned – no business has the right to block off a portion of the road and allow only specific people to pass further into town.

According to supporters of Network Neutrality, the Internet serves the same purpose. Internet users pay for access to the Internet (much the way taxes pay for maintenance and building of roads). Beyond this, Network Neutrality supporters believe that the Internet should be accessible in whichever direction a user wants to go. There shouldn’t be anyone telling Internet users that they can only visit this business instead of the one next door, in other words, or that they can study only at this virtual library instead of another website. Network neutrality comes down to the idea that the Internet should be operated under three principles of neutrality: non-discrimination, interconnection, and access.

The Judiciary bill currently before Congress would make it illegal under existing antitrust laws for providers of broadband Internet services to impose extra fees or to fail to provide services on “reasonable and nondiscriminatory terms.” Broadband Internet service providers would be prohibited from blocking, impairing, or degrading sites or services and from stopping users from attaching devices of their choice to their own Internet connection.

Since late 2005, a number of bills concerning net neutrality have gone before lawmakers. Most of these bills center around the rewriting of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. As the months pass and most of the bills are soundly shot down, the volatility of this issue continues to grow. As the law currently stands, the Senate’s telecommunications bill directs the FCC to watch for incidents that might be a violation of network neutrality and report directly to Congress.

Both sides of the issue are gaining heavyweight supporters. California Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, said that if Congress didn’t take action to support network neutrality, “We’re going to put a lot of people in the slow lane – as a matter of fact, we’re going to have a lot of people not able to access the Internet, and it’s a very unfair system.” Against network neutrality laws, Republican Senators Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Sam Brownback of Kansas wrote a one-page letter to colleagues dated May 16, arguing that supporting network neutrality would “penalize broadband access providers for making major improvements to the Internet.”

Meanwhile, Verizon has released a memo stating that the financial services industry is being fed misinformation about the merits and perils of network neutrality, and groups like SaveTheInternet.com have gathered thousands of members who are pushing the Congress to protect network neutrality principles through petitions, emails, phone calls, and letters. Wisconsin Representative F. James Sensenbrenner has also dropped a related bill that would have required logs be stored of Internet users’ online activities. Until a bill is passed, look for this topic to become even more heated.

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