House Judiciary Committee Will Cast Crucial Vote on Internet’s Future on Thursday

H.R. 5417, the Internet Freedom and Non-Discrimination Act, has big implications for Internet

The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday will cast a vote with huge implications for the future of the Internet as we know it. Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and ranking minority member Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) are co-sponsors of H.R. 5417, the Internet Freedom and Non-Discrimination Act.

Their bipartisan bill would guarantee our right to “net neutrality” — the principle that Internet users should be able to access any web content they choose and use any applications they choose, without restrictions or limitations imposed by their Internet service provider.

“Net neutrality” may sound obscure and wonky. But it is crucial if the Internet is to remain a forum for us to talk to one another, to access web sites for information, to read, write and comment on blogs, to engage in political forums, or to donate money and learn about political candidates. There is a real risk that telephone and cable companies, which provide access to the Internet for 95 percent of U.S. consumers who go online, will use their market power to transform the Internet into largely a vehicle for selling us things – entertainment, games and goods. And even then, only those goods and commodities from which they can extract the most profit will be most accessible.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) used to protect our rights to access any information we wanted on the Internet. But we lost those protections in August 2005, when the FCC decided to change the way it enforced rules dealing with the Internet. As a consequence, there is now no rule or regulation that will prevent the phone and cable companies from doing what they’ve said they want to do: charge content providers for the right to be on their Internet pipes, and make special deals with some companies to ensure their sites and services work faster and are easier to find by Internet users.

It was a free and open Internet, without barriers to entry that made it possible for young, unknown entrepreneurs to develop Google, Yahoo, eBay and many other innovative businesses. But access to the Internet will be too costly for the next generation of innovators.

And nonprofits, bloggers and a host of other groups that have Internet web sites also will be left out in the cold. Rather than an Internet where any idea is welcome and where only our imaginations limit what we can discover, we will be left with an Internet that is more like cable TV. Those providing information and opinion will be hard to find and slower to access. Entertainment options will largely be determined by the phone and cable companies.

The Sensenbrenner-Conyers bill will ensure that anti-trust law covers the actions of the providers of high-speed Internet by specifically banning discriminatory practices that affect our rights to access the information we want.

Why is this important now?

Congress is currently drafting a bill that would revise and update the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The House Commerce Committee defeated attempts to strengthen the bill with strong provisions on net neutrality. That’s why the House Judiciary vote this week is so important. It gives Congress another chance to protect our rights to a free and open Internet.

Is this a real threat?

It’s not just a threat: There have already been instances of Internet providers blocking access to Internet applications that allow you to access your company’s network, share files with peers – even send large attachments (like digital photos) in your email. In 2005, the FCC sanctioned a rural telephone company named Madison River Communications for blocking its DSL customers from making phone calls over the Internet. Also last year, Telus, a telephone company in Canada, blocked its customers from visiting a website sympathetic to the Telecommunications Workers Union during a labor dispute.

Foreign governments have also sought to block certain web pages and Internet applications. In China, the government uses sophisticated software to control which websites can and cannot be accessed. Bloggers receive government warnings for writing words like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy.’ Web searches for sensitive keywords often lead to the equivalent of an Internet black hole.

There is nothing in rule or law today that protects us from these abuses. Telephone and cable companies could legally restrict access to any website or Internet application they choose whenever it suits their bottom-line economic, or even political, interests. The industry’s claim that this is “a solution in search of a problem” is shortsighted and untrue.

Are there legitimate reasons why an Internet provider would block content or an Internet application?

Yes. Internet providers should be able to block spam emails, as well as viruses that could harm their networks and their customers’ computers. But industry interests argue that they should be able to block anything that interferes with “quality of service.” That definition is too broad. It’s possible that a provider could decide to block Google or Yahoo in favor of its own search engine, saying it’s in the interest of better “quality of service.”

What are some ways I might be affected?

Providers can restrict or disrupt your access to web content and applications in a variety of ways, including:

Discriminating against competitors’ services: A provider could make sure that preferred content or applications load faster and more efficiently while competing services are slow or spotty. That would effectively create a tiered Internet – with a fast lane for those who will pay, and a slow lane for everyone else.

Limiting diversity of content: A provider can enhance its own web content and services by featuring prominent menus, program guides, start screens, etc. while systematically excluding competing content.

Favoring commercial services: The nonprofit and noncommercial sector could be distinguished from the for-profit sector of the online community in terms of services offered, and would suffer because they cannot compete in an environment where they have to pay for better service.

Restricting Internet telephone: Services that allow you to make low-cost, long-distance telephone calls using a high-speed Internet connection (sometimes called VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol) are becoming more and more popular. But traditional phone companies who are now getting into the Internet business don’t want to lose their customers to Internet phone companies like Vonage and Skype. However, there is nothing stopping them from using their gatekeeper status to block their competitors.

Will this legislation turn control of the Internet over to government regulators?

No. This legislation simply makes it unlawful for an Internet service provider to block, impair or discriminate against any lawful Internet content or applications. It does not give the government any special rights or control over Internet traffic.