Perhaps anticipating that Congress won’t be enacting strict rules pertaining to network neutrality during this year’s short legislative session, Google (News
), the world’s leading search engine, warned on Tuesday that if any network operator attempts to block or degrade its content, it will not hesitate to file an antitrust complaint with the Department of Justice.
“If the legislators insist on net neutrality, we will be happy,” Google’s Vice President Vinton Cerf was quoted as saying in a Reuters report
. “If they do not put it in, we will be less happy, but then we will have to wait and see whether or not there actually is any abuse.”
Cerf, one of the Internet’s pioneers and a staunch proponent for safeguarding net neutrality through government regulation, said if Congress fails to enact strict rules regarding Internet access this year, “then we will simply have to wait until something bad happens and then we will make known our case to the Department of Justice’s antitrust division.” His comments were made during a press conference in Bulgaria, where he is giving advice to the government on how to boost the country’s e-commerce.
Major Internet companies including Google, Yahoo, Vonage (News
) (which provides VoIP phone service) and Amazon.com, as well as a slew of civic action and consumer groups (including MoveOn.org, SaveTheInternet.com and the Christian Coalition, to name a few) have for months been lobbying on Capitol Hill, pushing for net neutrality legislation which will prohibit network operators from establishing paid tiers of service on the Internet and from discriminating against “non-paying” users of their networks. Pitted against them are the major Internet operators, including AT&T (News
) and Verizon (News
), which want to establish paid tiers of service for the express delivery and video and voice signals. They claim they have no intention of blocking or degrading others’ signals, and are looking to set up paid tiers of service so as to off-set the massive cost of building out their networks to handle the intensive bandwidth requirements for delivering video and voice. As such, they are asking Congress to refrain from imposing rules that will hamper infrastructure upgrades and investment in telecom.
The battle over net neutrality started to heat up this past fall, just as Congress started to take up the daunting task of re-writing the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (sections of which are now largely obsolete due to sweeping changes in the telecommunications industry, mainly the migration of voice and video services over to the Internet). In a November Business Week interview, AT&T CEO Edward Whitacre said for his company to let Google, Yahoo or any other Internet company to use AT&T’s “pipes” for “free” is “nuts.” Whitacre’s controversial comments set the stage for a political firestorm on net neutrality – a firestorm which has deeply divided Republicans and Democrats, while at the same time causing major headaches for the technically challenged.
Proponents of net neutrality say network operators should not be allowed to charge for faster access because it will fundamentally alter the free and open model which has made the Internet so successful. They claim that allowing operators to charge for faster service will skew competition in the favor of the large companies which can afford fast delivery of their content and services, while smaller companies will be relegated to the Internet’s “slow lane,” thus putting them at an economic disadvantage. Furthermore, net neutrality proponents assert that once network operators are allowed to establish paid tiers, this will pave the way for them to “discriminate” against non paying users of their networks by degrading or blocking their signals.
Just last week, the Senate Commerce Committee rejected an amendment
to the Communications, Consumer’s Choice and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006
that would have barred network operators from establishing paid tiers of service on the Internet and also would have prohibited them from discriminating against content or services from “non-paying” users of their networks. The amendment, offered by Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), and Byron Dorgan, (D- N.D.), is similar to a stand alone net neutrality bill introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) in March (and which may still be taken up by the full Senate). The committee tied, 11 to 11, on the amendment - thus it failed and was not incorporated into the larger bill. The committee then approved
the Communications, Consumer’s Choice and Broadband Deployment Act, 15 to 7, thus sending it on to the full Senate for a vote without any additional net neutrality provisions.
Although the Act’s net neutrality provisions do not prohibit network operators from establishing paid tiers, it does include an “Internet Consumers Bill of Rights
” which calls for fair and equal access and prohibits network operators from engaging in acts of discrimination.
One of the main purposes for the Communications, Consumer’s Choice and Broadband Deployment Act, which was drafted and introduced by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), is to allow cable and phone companies to set up national franchises for the delivery of digital video content over the Internet. If the bill is approved by the full Senate, it will have to be reconciled with a similar, yet narrower telecommunications reform bill, the Communications, Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement (COPE) Act
, which was passed in June in the House of Representatives.
Google’s warning to network operators perhaps carries more weight due to the fact that the House Judiciary Committee recently approved a standalone net neutrality bill
(the only vote in support of net neutrality so far this session). Reps. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) first introduced the “Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act” in May, but when the House Commerce Committee rejected it, the two decided to bring it before the Judiciary Committee (the Judiciary Committee already had a problem with the bill because, the way the Commerce Committee had drafted it, it didn’t recognize the Judiciary Committee’s role in upholding net neutrality). At that time, the senators argued that allowing network operators to discriminate against others through the establishment of paid tiers was a violation of U.S. anti-trust laws, and therefore fell under the authority of the U.S. Justice Department. The Judiciary Committee agreed and passed the bill 20 to 13. However, it was later defeated by the full House.
Although the Sensebrenner-Conyers bill was really no more than a political football in a “turf war” between the two committees, and ultimately failed, the Judiciary Committee’s support of the bill was largely viewed as a victory for net neutrality supporters. A majority of the committee’s members, or so it seemed, agreed that regulation of the Internet did fall under the Justice Department’s purview. The committee’s vote, therefore, could work in Google’s favor, should Congress fail to adopt meaningful net neutrality legislation - and should an incident of “discrimination” prompt Google to register a complaint with the Department of Justice. (At least the DoJ would have some indication as to what the committee members were thinking when they approved the bill.)
With a summer break looming and only three full months left before the November elections, most political analysts are predicting that Congress won’t have enough time to enact comprehensive telecom reform this year. This may work in the favor of congressional Democrats, in terms of their future hopes for net neutrality, as they will likely end up in the majority following this year’s elections.
--------Patrick Barnard is Associate Editor for TMCnet and a columnist covering the telecom industry. To see more of his articles, please visit Patrick Barnard’s columnist page.