Comcast, Ebay Take Their Neutral Corners

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David Cohen, EVP of Comcast Corp., and Meg Whitman, President/CEO of online auction site, eBay, have become electronic pen pals of a sort, swapping e-mails over the issue of network neutrality, though on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Cohen, for one, has has suggested staking out some "neutral" territory to lay out both sides of the issue at the same time.

The exchange of letters comes as Senate Commerce Committee Republican Chairman Ted Stevens continues to try to get the 60 votes needed to overcome a threatened Democrat veto--over the issue of network neutrality--and bring a communications reform bill to the floor.

In a nutshell, companies like eBay fear that, without laws preventing it, networks have too much power to limit speech and discourage online innovation. Networks say they plan to do neither, that the FCC has the power to stop them if they try, and that regulation would not leave them free to manage their networks and get a return on their investment in them.

According to the e-mails supplied to B&C by one of the many groups lobbying on the net neutrality issue, Whitman sent the following e-mail to Cohen, apparently in his capacity as eBay user (it has been abreviated slightly).

"Dear ______

"As you know, I almost never reach out to you personally with a request to get involved in a debate in the U.S. Congress. However, today I feel I must.

"Right now, the telephone and cable companies in control of Internet access are trying to use their enormous political muscle to dramatically change the Internet. It might be hard to believe, but lawmakers in Washington are seriously debating whether consumers should be free to use the Internet as they want in the future.

"Join me by clicking here -- http://www.ebaymainstreet.com/netneutrality-- to send a message to your representatives in Congress.

The phone and cable companies now control more than 95% of all Internet access. These large corporations are spending millions of dollars to promote legislation that would allow them to divide the Internet into a two-tiered system.

The top tier would be a "Pay-to-Play" high-speed toll-road restricted to only the largest companies that can afford to pay high fees for preferential access to the Net.

The bottom tier -- the slow lane -- would be what is left for everyone else. If the fast lane is the information "super-highway," the slow lane will operate more like a dirt road...

The power belongs with Internet users, not the big phone and cable companies. Let's use that power to send as many messages as possible to our elected officials in Washington. Please join me by clicking here right now to send a message to your representatives in Congress before it is too late. You can make the difference.

Thank you for reading this note. I hope you'll make your voice heard today.

Sincerely,

Meg Whitman

President and CEO

eBay Inc.

Cohen, whose company takes a different tack on the issue, being one of those large cable companies, responded with a long e-mail, excerpted below:

"Dear Meg:

"As an eBay user, I was excited to get email from the CEO. As you might imagine, I also have some thoughts on the network neutrality issue.

"Like many Internet companies, eBay has been an incredible success story, thanks in part to the competitive broadband networks that extend to homes around the country, networks in which our company and other cable companies have invested over $110 billion over the last decade, while phone and wireless companies have invested tens of billions more.One might argue that the broadband era itself has enabled more innovation on the Internet than any other technological development to date.

"The next generation of broadband networks will require even more investment, which will create even greater opportunities for innovative business models on the Web.However, in my judgment, regulating networks in the name of "network neutrality" will throw a monkey-wrench into the works.It will discourage innovation in networks and in business arrangements in ways that will not benefit consumers and will in fact stymie opportunities for innovators....'

"Since you were kind enough to share your views about the importance of fairness and neutrality on the Internet not just with me but presumably with millions of eBay users, I respectfully make this proposal.

"Why don't we work together to find an appropriate forum or method to provide truly neutral information on "network neutrality" to all of your customers.Instead of just providing a one-sided, decidedly non-neutral perspective on this complicated issue, let's give your customers a more balanced -- more "neutral" -- set of facts, in a dispassionate format, so they can make up their own minds.I have great confidence that, given all the facts, consumers will not support regulating the Internet.If you would like to discuss my offer, I am at your disposal."

Sincerely,

David L. Cohen

Executive Vice President

Comcast Corporation

Whitman's e-mail was received Aug. 3; Cohen's response was sent out Aug. 7. No word on whether Whitman has yet responded to the call-out..

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