Anyone who believes that the recent political maneuvers to keep the net neutrality issue out of the legislative agenda this year have been successful is sadly mistaken, promise backers of the concept.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee recently rejected a proposal by Democrats to include net neutrality regulations in a telecom bill, called the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Efficiency (COPE) Act of 2006, which then passed.
Undaunted, the Democrats have introduced a new bill that seeks to ban phone and cable companies from charging higher rates to high-volume Web sites or from blocking access to competitors’ services. The House bill is sponsored by Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.). Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has introduced a similar bill in the Senate.
In the middle of this fight is Paul Misener, vice president of Global Public Policy for Amazon.com, a Web site that would likely find itself at the receiving end of such tactics.
An engineer by profession, Misener has worked at the Federal Communications Commission — a background that allows him to speak from both a regulatory and technical perspective when he testifies to Congress, which he does frequently. The E-Commerce Times caught up with Misener after the defeat of the net neutrality proposal in the House.
E-Commerce Times: Is there a silver lining to the loss in the Commerce committee?
Misener: Of course we were disappointed that the amendment offered by Mr. Markey was defeated, but we still feel we have made progress in the committee. A few weeks ago a similar amendment had been proposed, and it was defeated — but at far bigger numbers. This time more Congresspeople on the committee voted for the net neutrality provisions.
ECT: To what do you attribute the increased support?
Misener: Ongoing education. The more we explain this issue, the more Congress understands how important it is to provide safeguards. This is not an easy subject to master. Also, I think a lot of people — including consumers — assume the Internet will always be open and free. It has been that way since the beginning, so it is a logical assumption to make.
Net neutrality legislation is merely preserving what have been longstanding rules of the road.
ECT: Why haven’t providers tried to leverage their position before now?
Misener: They haven’t always been able to. It was only recently that the FCC decided to reclassify broadband Internet access in such a way that network operators were no longer required to operate non-discriminatorily.
Also, there are pending mergers in the telecom industry that will take some time to absorb. And finally, quite frankly, carriers are on their best behavior right now while legislation is being proposed and debated.
ECT: So there haven’t been any cases of a carrier using its pipes to block a site or charge more money for access?
Misener: No, not yet. But that doesn’t mean they are not thinking about it or planning to. Industry executives have talked plainly about prioritizing traffic on the Internet. They say they will not block or degrade service otherwise, but that is not possible if they are prioritizing some content.
Also, it is not just U.S. firms. The CEO of Deutsche Telecom has talked about this too.
ECT: Let’s get really Orwellian. What are some of the worst-case scenarios that could occur without a net neutrality law in place?
Misener: Well, the carriers say they would prioritize content based on economic reasons. But if they have that latitude for financial purposes, then they can also do it for political reasons.
A carrier could block access to a labor union site during a dispute. It could block access to a Web site after a special interest group makes a lot of noise about it. It could even block a political site to curry favor with the current administration. All that sounds far fetched, but the whole point is that there is nothing in place to stop carriers from doing it. So why dismantle the protection?
ECT: Most likely they would use their control to charge sites like Amazon higher fees.
Misener: Yes, that is true — we probably would be affected. But this is something that will impact anybody who uses the Internet. That is why we have such a broad range of interest groups on our side — from AARP to the National Religious Broadcasters to Moveon.org.
ECT: Why not wait and see if the carriers actually carry out these scenarios? Certainly enough people will complain if they find access to their favorite sites is much slower or even blocked.
Misener: True. But ultimately what can they do besides complain? Consumers have little choice when it comes to high speed Internet. If they had more choices of providers, this wouldn’t be such a dangerous situation.