Bush Administration Takes Aim at Network Neutrality

DOJ Filing: Networks Should Be Able to Charge More for Faster Internet Service

In a filing in a Federal Communications Commission inquiry into the issue, the Department of Justice cautioned against what it characterized as regulations that would "hamper the development of the Internet and related services."

The DOJ said networks should be allowed to charge content providers for "faster and more reliable service," adding that not to allow that would shift the burden of paying for network buildouts onto consumers -- an argument networks have made frequently. "Any regulation that prohibits this type of pricing may leave broadband providers unable to raise the capital necessary to fund these investments," the DOJ said, sounding a lot like an AT&T executive.

“Regulators should be careful not to impose regulations that could limit consumer choice and investment in broadband facilities,” said Thomas O. Barnett, Assistant Attorney General in the antitrust division.

Applying a snail-mail example to the e-mail world, the DOJ said differential pricing and service is standard operating procedure at the Post Office, where there are a variety of speeds, from bulk  mail to overnight delivery, depending on demand.

The DOJ agreed with FCC chairman Kevin Martin and others that network-neutrality regulations would address a problem that has yet to be identified. “Even assuming that a potential danger exists, the ambiguity of what conduct needs to be prohibited raises a real possibility that regulation would prohibit some conduct that is beneficial, while failing to stop other conduct that may be harmful,” the DOJ said.

It added that it would remain vigilant about any violations that ran afoul of antitrust laws currently on the books.

The commission has sought out specific examples of violations of its general neutrality principles as part of its investigation into the issue.

Network-neutrality supporters were quick to take aim at the administration position.

“It would seem that the president and the Justice Department cannot do enough for AT&T and the other companies that agreed to spy on the American people," said Harold Feld, senior vice president of Media Access Project, referring to reports of phone-company cooperation with government information-collection operations related to homeland security. "Without network neutrality, companies are free to turn over user information without a warrant or to block users from desired content,­ as AT&T recently did ‘accidentally’ by blocking Pearl Jam’s criticism of the president during a concert performance carried on AT&T’s broadband service."

AT&T has said that was a mistake made by an outside company and won't be repeated.

“The filing is filled with mischaracterizations of what net neutrality will preserve for consumers," said Public Knowledge president Gigi Sohn. "Most blatantly, the DOJ failed to recognize that net neutrality is a protection for consumers and for Internet companies against discrimination by telephone and cable companies. Net neutrality would not restrict the types of services that telephone and cable companies could offer. Such a policy would make certain that those companies had to do so in a nondiscriminatory fashion, as the law originally intended.”