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Christopher Kuttruff: Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality

By Christopher Kuttruff
t r u t h o u t | Report

The Federal Communications Commission has recently encountered mounting scrutiny in response to its broad deregulatory practices. Public frustration regarding the FCC has peaked at a time of fierce debate on net neutrality.

In a memo obtained Tuesday by The Washington Post, 30 current and former commission employees complained about the leadership of FCC Chairman Kevin Martin.

Staff members observed that "the FCC process appears broken and most of the blame appears to rest with Chairman Martin."

The memo, written to chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee John Dingell and chairman of the House Energy Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Bart Stupak, increases pressure on the FCC chairman, who, in particular, has been accused of a rigidly anti-regulatory, pro-corporate approach. Many critics assert that his approach has contributed to a lack of oversight over network providers.

For those not familiar with this sometimes complex issue, network neutrality involves the idea that internet users should control how they use resources online and broadband providers should not be allowed to abuse their influence on the market to favor certain content, applications or services over others.

An egregious example of violating this principle could entail an internet broadband company impeding access to certain web sites that run counter to their own business or political interests. This could be achieved by filtering search results to favor certain web sites or by slowing bandwidth to other sites or services.

One can quickly see the significance of maintaining a balanced, unrestricted network.

In August and September 2007, reports started surfacing from Comcast customers that their BitTorrent transfer speeds were being slowed or even blocked. BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer protocol that allows internet users to transfer large files quickly and efficiently. BitTorrent has become an extremely popular tool because it allows many internet users to download and upload non-contiguous pieces of files simultaneously. Comcast's techniques for inhibiting such transfers, not too dissimilar from censorship methods used by the Chinese government, prompted a barrage of complaints from consumers as well as pressure from the FCC.

Comcast argued that it was trying to prevent users from consuming too much bandwidth and affecting internet speeds of other subscribers, but many angry customers rejected this justification. These customers stated in a petition to the FCC: "[Comcast] is blatantly violating the FCC's Internet Policy Statement by degrading a range of peer-to-peer applications. Comcast has also engaged in deceptive practices and continues to do so ... without informing users and while advertising access to the Internet. Peer-to-peer protocols benefit distributors of large files. If these protocols are burdened, content providers that use server-client distribution will receive a skewed competitive advantage unrelated to consumer preferences."

In what many critics have called an empty attempt to improve public image and avoid FCC regulation, Comcast issued a "Bill of Rights and Responsibilities" to better define its policies.

Even Chairman Martin, however, noted in a statement: "I am concerned, though, that Comcast has not made clear when they will stop this discriminatory practice. It appears this practice will continue throughout the country until the end of the year and in some markets, even longer."

Despite Martin's concern on the matter, many computer users refer to other incidents of network manipulation and stress that the problem is more generally a lack of regulation.

In September 2007, Verizon blocked NARAL Pro-Choice America from sending political messages to those who opted to receive said messages from the organization regarding an ongoing campaign. Although Verizon quickly changed its decision after media attention, the event marked another disturbing example of how much control communications companies have over exchanges of information.

Certain members of the House have tried to pass legislation to clearly prohibit network interference, but have met significant resistance.

In 2006, Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan), Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) and several other co-sponsors attempted to pass the Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act of 2006. This legislation would have changed the Clayton Antitrust Act to prohibit certain kinds of discrimination by broadband network providers. The Act would have made it illegal to "discriminate against, or to interfere with the ability of any person to use a broadband network service to access, to use, to send, to receive, or to offer lawful content, applications or services over the Internet." (H.R. 5417) The bill, which passed the House Judiciary Committee on May 25, 2006, by 20-13, was later buried - not to be taken up on the House floor.

The failure of Congress to pass comprehensive legislation on net neutrality has forced computer users seeking effective regulation to continue pressuring broadband companies and the FCC, lest potentially unbalanced practices previously exhibited by Comcast, Verizon and others go unnoticed.


Christopher Kuttruff is an assistant editor and reporter for Truthout.

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