House Judiciary Committee Logs On to Network-Neutrality Issue

Debate Continues Over Network-Management Practices

The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony Tuesday on the anticompetitive implications of the network-neutrality issue.

A representative of the Christian Coalition argued that the group did not seek "burdensome regulations" and preferred less regulation but suggested that it might be necessary anyway because of actions taken by some broadband-network providers.

Michele Combs, vice president of communications for the Christian Coalition, cited Verizon Communications’ blocking of text messages, AT&T’s blocking of political speech (some anti-administration lyrics in a Pearl Jam concert), and the AP test of Comcast peer-to-peer network management in which the downloading of a King James Bible was blocked.

All those have been the subjects of complaints to the Federal Communications Commission, which is currently considering what, if anything, to do about network management, including coming up with a better definition of what is off-limits.

Combs said faith-based groups are increasingly using the Internet, that networks must not be allowed to block political speech and that those networks appear to be using the same techniques as China has used to block the Christian Coalition.

Seconding that concern about so-called network neutrality was Caroline Fredrickson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington legislative office. She blamed FCC inaction and the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the Brand X ruling for network "gatekeepers" increasingly controlling access to content.

The Supreme Court in 2005 upheld the FCC's decision that phone networks’ provision of Internet was not subject to the same mandatory access provisions as telephone common-carrier service. In the interests of regulatory parity, it said, the commission has since extended that to cable, satellite and other network providers.

Frederickson said those provisions, which had been applied to data services as far back as the late 1960s, allowed the Internet to flourish.

She added that nondiscrimination principles do not violate network operators' free speech. In fact, she said, network operators aren't speakers, per se, but provide wires in much the same way telephone companies do.

But the essential factor is free speech, she added, and that is the speech of users and content providers. Whether networks have to engage in network management is up to the technology people, she said. But if there must be such management, it must be equitable and not used as a "cover" for blocking certain types of content.

She called for legislation: “Congress should act to protect the rights of all Internet users to send and receive lawful content free of censorship from government or business,” she said. “Restoring meaningful rules that protect Internet users from corporate censorship is vital to the future of free speech on the Internet.”

Rick Carnes, president of the Songwriters Guild of America, put in a plug for network management, saying that the real bottleneck is not networks but the illegal P2P file sharing that is killing the songwriting business.

He pointing out that his song publisher used to have one-dozen writers on staff and now has one. He is particularly concerned with legislation that would impede the ability of networks to manage traffic or that would prevent them from employing illegal file-detection technologies.

Carnes said 5% of Internet users are responsible for 70% of the P2P traffic and 90% of that traffic is illegal. He added that studies showed that the majority of pirates would stop if their network warned them or made them stop.

He called it odd that the problem of network congestion would be addressed by denying networks the ability to manage congestion, saying management was, instead, a case of the market dealing with the problem.

University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor Christopher Yoo said networks and content providers are symbiotic. There is a small potential for anticompetitive behavior, but that should be looked at on a case-by-case basis rather than broad regulation, he added.

In a bit of serendipity, the live video of the hearing first froze and then was inaccessible for several minutes due to problems with the streaming, according to a committee spokesperson.