Net neutrality controversial topic

For the London Free Press – October 19, 2009

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INTERNET CONTENT: There’s considerable debate in Canada and the United States about how much control Internet service providers should have over content

Net neutrality is a controversial topic that causes concern for Internet activists.

Net (or network) neutrality essentially means that those who control the Internet (Internet service providers, or ISPs) shouldn’t favour one person’s content over another. Think of it as a code of ethics for fair operation of the Internet.

Sounds simple enough, but it’s a complex and controversial area.

Supporters of net neutrality are far-reaching and include prominent and influential members of the Internet community.

For some — particularly ISPs — it is an issue they would prefer would just go away. ISPs often take the position that a certain amount of control over delivery of Internet traffic is necessary for efficient operation of the ‘Net.

Net neutrality focuses on the concern that ISPs filter or degrade certain content in favour of other content. Proponents feel discrimination of Internet content should be prohibited.

The issue really shouldn’t be about traffic discrimination as a concept, but over when it is or is not acceptable, and how it is done.

The CRTC held hearings on Internet traffic management practices last summer. It has yet to render an opinion on the matter.

The net neutrality controversy in the United States became prominent in August 2008 when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ordered Comcast to stop blocking peer-to-peer applications.

Comcast went to court, arguing that the FCC could not order the company to treat Internet traffic in a specific way. That matter has yet to be heard.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski recently proposed wide-ranging rules for regulating how ISPs and wireless carriers can handle the subscribers’ traffic.

In the past, the FCC has provided guidelines on the prohibition of blocking certain traffic and pushing for net neutrality, but this was the first time actual rules were to be enacted.

The proposal was passed, but it will be months before final rules are be created.

U.S. President Barack Obama believes “well-crafted” regulations of the Internet would encourage investment and innovation.

Net neutrality proponents agree and want to protect the equal treatment of all types of data available to users on the Internet.

The proposed formal rules would ensure that Internet carriers cannot discriminate against certain Internet traffic by blocking service. Wireless carriers will also be subject to the rules.

But Republican senators disagreed. Such critics of net neutrality maintain the negative actions of one such carrier should not lead to such far-reaching consequences for the entire marketplace.

The Republican criticism is based on the fear of stifling investment incentives as the business of ISPs becomes hampered by government directives.

Critics also argue that the FCC decision prematurely draws conclusions about the effects of net neutrality and state that the “facts do not clearly demonstrate that a problem needs to be remedied.”

Similarly, the top executive at AT&T has said that in the absence of any “compelling evidence of problems or abuse,” the company would be disappointed if Washington enacted such rules.

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