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No Corporate Gatekeepers for the Net

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April 23, 2008

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing on the future of the Internet: a topic that should be of utmost importance to everyone congregating here.

Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) spoke of the heightened urgency of creating net neutrality, which government regulation that would prevent telecommunications companies from controlling Americans’ access to content on the Internet. Kerry reminded us that, as predicted, major companies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon are policing and blocking content already:

When we held hearings previously about net neutrality, many of us who were pushing for it warned that without net neutrality we’d start to have problems as companies started making their own rules on what they would allow to happen on their networks. And it turns out we were right. Just this winter, we heard reports that Comcast was blocking traffic that was using the popular file-sharing program BitTorrent. Comcast initially denied this, but when engineers proved it was happening, Comcast was forced to admit the truth – they were blocking traffic around a particular program. And this wasn’t just Comcast – there have been incidents reported involving AT&T and Verizon as well.

The hearing featured the president of the Writers Guild of America, Patric Verrone, who framed the net neutrality issue as one of preserving innovation and creativity. He said:”The Internet holds incredible potential to resurrect a vibrant industry of independent creators with free access to, and distribution of, democratic (with a small d) content.”

The big telecommunication companies like Comcast persistently argue that their ability to police the Internet will lead to greater innovation within the private sector while interspersing absurd doomsday prophesies about the Internet reaching full capacity.They insist that a market free of government regulation will police itself and keep consumers safe, even as the allegations of abuse continue to pile up.

Professor Lawrence Lessig of Stanford Law School echoed Senator Kerry’s concern with his remarks:

In both of the earlier hearings at which I was invited to testify about network neutrality issues, critics of regulation argued that there was no reason to intervene, because there was no actual evidence of discrimination. In the two years since my last testimony, however, network owners have provided this Congress with a significant number of examples of exactly the kind of harmful discrimination that network theorists have long predicted.

Perhaps most noteworthy were the comments of FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who voiced his suspicion that Comcast was, in fact, slowing some kinds of Internet communications based on content. His comments cast doubt on Comcast’s claim that its throttling of BitTorrent traffic was an impartial broadband management decision resting on the level of congestion caused by that particular type of communication.

The longer we continue without guidance in the form of proactive FCC intervention and/or legislative action, the longer millions of individual users of the Internet will need to contend with the whims of a few large corporate service providers. Systems put in place by government have permitted these private entities to control access to and communications across the Internet. The government must take positive steps to prevent these kinds of private speech restrictions imposed on Internet users.

In testimony to the House Judiciary Committee last month, Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, underscored the need for free speech, freedom from discrimination and net neutrality regulation. ‘We cannot sit idly by and let any censor stifle those freedoms, regardless of whether it is the government or a handful of network providers.’

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