Gigs & Bytes: Net Neutrality Goes To Washington
That was the issue when the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee heard from Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin April 22nd. Martin was testifying on Comcast Corp.’s “network management” practices.
Of course, “network management” is the official term for what Associated Press caught Comcast doing late last year when it proved the Internet service provider was hindering peer-to-peer file transfers. Initially denying that it interfered with its users’ activities, Comcast eventually copped to “network management” practices after being exposed.
But even though P2P is often blamed as a vehicle for massive copyright infringement, content piracy wasn’t Comcast’s concern when company computers began interrupting file transfers. Instead, Comcast said the issue was traffic congestion and the bandwidth P2P transfers often require.
However, claims that it only interrupted P2P transfers to ease network congestion may have been a bit misleading. During his Senate testimony, Martin said Comcast was hindering P2P actions even when there wasn’t any danger of network congestion.
“Contrary to some claims, it does not appear that this technique was used only to occasionally delay traffic at particular nodes suffering from network congestion at that time,” Martin said in his written statement to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
“Based on testimony we’ve received thus far, this equipment was typically deployed over a wider geographic area or system area and would therefore have impacted numerous nodes within a system simultaneously. Moreover, the equipment apparently used does not appear to have the ability to know when an individual cable segment is congested. It appears that this equipment blocks the uploads of at least a large portion of subscribers in that part of the network, regardless of the actual levels of congestion at that particular time.”
Aside from pointing out that Comcast was practicing its network management when such management wasn’t warranted, Martin also said his agency had all the authority it needs to police ISPs for data discrimination, and that no new laws are needed.
Recent calls in favor of, or against, government regulation seemed to be split along party lines, with Democrats favoring legislation while Republicans opposed any new laws.
“It is a political division now and it’s getting more so,” said Senator Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, the same senator who once described the Internet as a “series of tubes.”
However, several reasons were also put forth supporting legislation protecting Net Neutrality.
“The idea of your site succeeding or failing based upon whether or not you paid the telecom companies enough to carry your material or allow quick access is appalling,” said Justine Bateman, an actress and founding partner in a new online media company.
Another person testifying before the committee in favor of laws protecting Net Neutrality was Patric Verrone, president of the Writers Guild of America West. Verrone detailed how writers got their message to the public during the recent Hollywood writers strike, and worried how things might have been different if corporations controlled data flow on the Net.
“When your employers are the same companies that control the media, it’s hard to get your message out,” Verrone said.
In addition to the pros and cons of Net Neutrality legislation, some even suggested that the issue wasn’t really an issue.
National Cable and Telecommunications Association president and CEO Kyle McSlarrow told the Senate committee that tens of millions of people use the Net every day and that “no one is being blocked.” However, McSlarrow also said that if users were blocked, they were free to choose another ISP.
The cry to protect Net Neutrality isn’t about P2P transfers or having channels for distributing the various sides of a labor strike. It’s about the potential for ISPs controlling or blocking certain kinds of data for whatever reasons, including network congestion, censorship or whether the content provider has paid for a faster lane on the information superhighway. The current Net Neutrality issue isn’t going away anytime soon.
The current controversy over Comcast “network managing” P2P transfers just might be the ticket for encouraging people to think about Net Neutrality. After all, it’s better to bicker over Net Neutrality while it’s here, instead of arguing about it after it’s left the building.