FCC hearing weighs net neutrality

Advocates on both sides of the net neutrality debate descended on Harvard Law School Monday for a U.S. Federal Communications Commission hearing that multiple speakers suggested was crucial to the Internet’s future.

Members of the FCC, along with industry representatives, legal scholars and pro-neutrality advocates spoke at the hearing, which drew an overflow crowd.

“The Internet is as much mine and yours as it is AT&T’s and Comcast’s,” said U.S. Representative Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts.

Markey has filed a bill along with U.S. Representative Charles Pickering, a Republican from Mississippi, in support of net neutrality, the idea that network providers shouldn’t discriminate against Web sites or various types of traffic. The FCC is investigating complaints that Comcast has interfered with P-to-P (peer-to-peer) traffic associated with file-sharing sites.

“Network operators are making choices right now that will determine how Americans communicate, now and in the future,” said FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps. “I am not saying that any or all of these practices are unlawful. I am saying that choices like these, when you add them all together, are going to determine what kind of Internet we have in the future.”

Other FCC members echoed Copps.

“Respect for the free flow of information was bred into our country from its founding,” said Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein. “We must preserve the open and neutral character of the Internet, which has been its hallmark from the very beginning. It is clear consumers don’t want the Internet to be a another version of old media dominated by a number of giants.”

Gilles BianRosa, CEO of Vuze, a video service that uses P-to-P technology, said that while his company competes with Comcast in the delivery of content, the latter company holds an unfair advantage. “What we have here is a horse race, and Comcast owns the racetrack. I agree the market should decide which services win … but there is no market without basic ground rules and transparency. … We believe corporate assurances of good faith are not enough.”

Marvin Ammori, chief counsel for Free Press, an advocacy group backing the net neutrality effort, also described Monday’s discussion in sweeping terms.

“This hearing is not about technical details of managing networks, it’s about the future of online TV and the Internet,” Ammori said. “By targeting P-to-P, Comcast is disrupting investment and innovation in its online competition.”

But David Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast, was as vigorous in defending his company’s practices as its critics were in lambasting it.

“Comcast does not block any Web site, application or protocol, including P-to-P. Period,” he said.

The company only “manages” protocols such as P-to-P during limited periods of heavy traffic; does so in limited geographic areas; only manages uploads, not downloads; and merely delays, not totally blocks requests for uploads, he said.

“It’s true that to maximize our customer’s Internet experience, we do manage our network. But don’t let the rhetoric scare you. There’s nothing wrong with it,” he said. “Every network must be managed. Our customers want us to manage network congestion so they can do what they want, when they want, at reasonable speeds.”

Tom Tauke, executive vice president for public affairs-policy and communications at Verizon, noted that his company’s investment in fiber-optic networks has resulted in exponential growth in the size of data pipes to residential homes, but network management is still necessary. “As capacity grows so do the applications and services. This is a good thing, but you still have to have reasonable network practices,” he said.

Later Monday, the hearing continued with a second panel, this one stocked with an array of technologists from the academic and commercial sectors.

“Some kind of network management is critical. … the question is how to do that in an open manner,” said Daniel Weitzner, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Decentralized Information Group.

At the same time, the Web’s days as a primarily client-server environment are over, he suggested: “The profile of the way people use the Internet today is peer-to-peer, and we have to deal with it. But I think it poses a challenge way beyond whether we all get our BitTorrent or not. What’s really at stake is everyone’s ability to speak with everyone else.”

David Clark, a senior research scientist at MIT, predicted the debate could ultimately be settled by moving away from current pricing plans—which see ISPs (Internet service providers) charge varying rates for a broadband line’s speed, but not for the amount of content downloaded—to a cost schedule based more on data volume.

Eric Klinker, CTO of BitTorrent, said it is wrong for the industry to view his company as a force “endlessly consuming bandwidth.”

In fact, he argued, BitTorrent has actually solved a problem: “How do we effectively move large files on the Internet?” He listed off a series of public and private-sector organizations, ranging from film studios to NASA, which employ P-to-P file sharing to deliver large files.

Efforts to thwart P-to-P traffic “would stamp out in its infancy the most promising technology we have to deliver a world of near-infinite content,” he said, adding that the U.S. falls far behind other nations in terms of its Internet infrastructure: “Geopolitically, we might think of ourselves as a superpower, but when measured against network power we’re a Third World country at best.”

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