WASHINGTON - The FCC came to the Boston area, the birthplace of the Internet and the cradle of the American Revolution, on Monday to begin a serious examination of network neutrality, one of the most vexing free speech questions facing policymakers.The dispute pits open-Internet advocates against service providers such as Comcast Corp., which say they need to take reasonable steps to manage traffic on their networks.
During a field hearing at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee, urged the FCC to take a more activist stance on network neutrality.
"The Internet is as much mine and yours as much as it is Verizon's and AT&T's or Comcast's," said Markey, one of Congress' foremost experts on telecommunications. "The key question for safeguarding the Internet is recognition that the nature of the Net is not the services provided by the carriers themselves. They don't provide Internet services, they provide Internet access. There's a difference."
Markey has an ally in Vuze, a Silicon Valley-based company that provides high-definition content over the Internet using BitTorrent file-sharing technology. At the hearing, it asked the FCC to clarify how much power Internet service providers have in controlling traffic.
Vuze CEO Gilles BianRosa said that network companies, particularly Comcast, are trying to cut the company's legs out from under it. "What we have is a horse race, and in this case they own the only horse track in town," he said. "They also own a horse, and all they want to do is slow our horse down by two seconds."
Marvin Ammori, general counsel of public interest group Free Press, backed up BianRosa, telling the FCC that Comcast's decision to slow BitTorrent users is discrimination.
"Blocking or delaying BitTorrent is a clear violation of the right to access the content and applications of their choice," he said.
In November, Free Press filed a petition for declaratory ruling and a complaint against Comcast. It argues that the FCC's Internet Policy Statement forbids Comcast's actions.
The companies that built the networks say that any aggressive government role in ensuring network neutrality would be a mistake. They say they need the ability to manage their networks with little interference in order to provide a broad range of services.
"If our customers want it, Comcast will deliver it," Comcast executive vp David Cohen testified. "We do manage our networks, but don't let the rhetoric of our critics scare you. Every network is managed."
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Cohen told the FCC that they do slow down some applications in order to keep the network flowing but that it is a "minimal, virtually imperceptible effect on a minimum of users."
Cohen said that the free speech argument cuts both ways. If the government starts meddling in network management, he argued, it begins a slide down a slippery regulatory slope.
"And once the government starts regulating the Internet, there is nothing to limit its regulatory reach only to broadband service providers," he testified.
Verizon executive vp Tom Tauke backed up Cohen, saying his company does not block content for content's sake. "Network management is important to the secure and reliable functioning of our networks" and "just as important, if not more so, to consumers," he said.
It is difficult to divine where the FCC will come down on network neutrality. While Democrats have made the issue a touchstone, the commission is dominated by Republicans. That could change if the White House switches parties after the November elections. By law, the commission is split 3-2, with the party holding the presidency having a majority.
FCC chairman Kevin Martin, no friend of the cable industry, has been resistant to moving beyond the commission's 2005 statement of Internet principles. Yet he expressed concern Monday about the network operators' actions.
"I believe it's critical that the commission remain vigilant to protect consumers' access to content on the Internet," he said. "I think it's important to understand that the commission is ready, willing and able to step in, if necessary, to correct any practices that are ongoing today."
Senior Democratic commissioner Michael Copps wants the agency to take an aggressive stance. "There's an old Washington axiom: Decisions made without you are usually decisions against you," he said. "That kind of business-as-usual decisionmaking doesn't cut it for something this important."
Markey, on the day after the Oscars, didn't sound as if he's backing off anytime soon. "We want to be able to look back years from now, to be able to celebrate that this is no country for old bandwidth," he said.
© 2008 The Hollywood Reporter