The Federal Communications Commission convened a public hearing at Stanford University on Thursday to examine whether broadband Internet service providers (ISPs) should be allowed to restrict access to certain Internet software applications.
Speaking at a public seven-hour hearing at Dinkelspiel Auditorium, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said that the commission would decide whether certain ISPs are honest with their customers about how they manage their networks and if they deliver on the speeds that they advertise. Martin said the commission should scrutinize these two factors as it decides what constitutes "reasonable network management practices" by ISPs such as Comcast.
The hearing on the issue of "net neutrality," the notion that all Internet traffic should be unrestricted, comes after a similar hearing held at Harvard earlier this year at which Comcast reputedly paid seat-warmers to take up space and prevent members of the public from voicing their concerns.
"Application designers need to understand what will and what will not work on the network, and consumers must be fully informed about the exact nature of the service they are purchasing," Martin said. "Particularly as broadband providers are trying to provide tiers of service, it's critical to make sure that we are understanding that the broadband network operators are able to deliver the speeds and service that they are selling."
Democratic FCC Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps called for the agency to utilize its power to prevent Comcast and other ISPs from unfairly discriminating against some software traffic, such as BitTorrent, a popular peer-to-peer file sharing program.
"Consumers have come to expect and will continue to demand the open and neutral character that has always been the hallmark of the Internet," Adelstein said to an audience of about 400 people. "The movement for Internet freedom is tapping the same American spirit that fueled the movement against media consolidation."
Copps cited the desperate need for greater competition in the broadband marketplace. He said that effective competition would provide incentives for ISPs to maintain neutral and open networks and added that the FCC's own statistics show that telephone and cable operators control over 90 percent of the residential market.
"[The] wonderful, open and dynamic Internet - perhaps the most liberating technology since the printing press, if not even greater than that - is, in fact, under threat," Copps said. "We will keep it open and free only by acting to make it happen. Its future is not on autopilot and, indeed, powerful interests would bring it under their control for their own purposes; which may not be your purposes."
On the other hand, Republican Commissioners Deborah Tate and Robert McDowell warned against additional and costly government regulations. They said that while the anti-competitive allegations should be taken seriously, network issues were better settled by engineers in the private marketplace rather than by the government.
"The point is that the Internet has flourished by operating under the principle that engineers should solve engineering problems, not politicians and bureaucrats," McDowell said.
Members of the panel testifying at the hearing generally favored barring companies from blocking subscriber usage even in the name of controlling Internet traffic.
Stanford Law Professor Lawrence Lessig, founder of the Center for Internet and Society, said he was worried about the lack of competition among ISPs and that consumers do not get what they pay for, arguing that providers advertise certain connection speeds but then do not deliver upon those promises.
"We are facing these problems because of a failue of FCC policy," Lessig said. "The FCC failed to make it clear to the network owners that if they are building the Internet they need to build it neutrally."
Lessig compared the circumstances facing the Internet to a hypothetical situation of an electricity grid that restricted usage depending on whether the appliance plugged in was made by Sony or Toshiba. He noted that such an electrical grid would be possible to build but that one would need very strong arguments in order to convince the world to change. He argued that the Internet should be considered in the same manner.
Software quality engineer Robb Topolski, whose initial discovery of Comcast's methods of blocking access to BitTorrent ignited the net neutrality debate, also voiced opposition to restricting the Internet.
"It's the great firewall of China technique," Topolski said. "And it has not stopped. The behavior hasn't stopped."
Topolski explained that he also tested Cox Communication's network and found that they too were using the same technology that Comcast uses to block access to certain applications.
Comcast, with over 13 million broadband subscribers, has previously publicly denied restricting some applications and said it simply practices network management to deal with congestion - a statement Topolski refuted.
The entertainment industry was also represented at the hearing. Rick Carnes, president of the Songwriters Guild of America, noted his disappointed at how filtering technology was not more universally applied by ISPs to prevent users from exchanging pirated and copyrighted materials.
"Stealing music is not a victimless crime," Carnes said. "I have seen it destroy the lives of my friends and colleagues."
Jean Prewitt, president of the Independent Film and Television Alliance, called for non-discrimination policies so movies that were not associated with the seven major production studios could find an audience and innovate, citing the examples of independent films such as Juno and Lord of the Rings.
"We need to take proactive measures so that Internet does not become the closed bastion that television has become," Prewitt said.
Regulations enforcing net neutrality, however, were contested by some.
George Ford, chief economist at the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy Studies argued that there was no evidence that requiring network neutrality would encourage competition, increase bandwidth or reduce prices. He added that there are studies that indicate the inverse is true.
"The issue for me is not that we take Internet regulation too lightly but that we don't take it seriously enough," Ford said.
Michelle Combs, the vice president of the Christian Coalition of America, raised the issue that restricting access to a certain applications can also block legitimate material from being distributed. She pointed out that while the cable companies have a lot of pornography on their networks, the material that was not able to be downloaded on BitTorrent and sparked the entire controversy was a copy of the King James Bible.
"It offends me, and it ought to offend you," she said.
© 2008 The Stanford Daily via U-WIRE