Thanks to BitTorrrent, Net neutrality debate reignites

Following claims of Comcast blocking file-sharing traffic, debate over whether to create laws to keep the Internet open has resurfaced.

The controversial issue of Net neutrality is surfacing again amid allegations that phone companies and cable operators are throttling BitTorrent traffic and perhaps even censoring politically charged language.

Net neutrality, as it's often called, is the principle that all content transmitted over a cable or a phone company's network be treated equally and without preference. Last year, several consumer groups and Internet companies banded together to lobby Congress to pass a law to protect this principle. But those attempts failed.

Now Net neutrality is back in the political spotlight after a string of potential abuses have come to light. Last month, the Associated Press reported that it had carried out experiments across the country proving that Comcast prevented some users from uploading content to peer-to-peer networks including BitTorrent. Comcast disputed the results.

Over the summer, during a Webcast of the Lollapalooza concert in Chicago, AT&T bleeped portions of the Pearl Jam song "Daughter," in which singer Eddie Vedder altered lyrics to include anti-Bush sentiments. Other bands had also been censored on AT&T's Webcasts, including the John Butler Trio and Flaming Lips. AT&T admitted that these remarks had been deleted, but the company said these were mistakes made by an overzealous contractor hired to monitor the performances for obscene language.

Cell phone companies have also been accused of limiting access to their networks. In September, Verizon Wireless denied a request from an abortion rights group to use its mobile network for a new text-messaging campaign. After The New York Times wrote an article about the denial, Verizon changed its mind.

The Net neutrality issue has even crept into the 2008 presidential race with Sen. Barack Obama publicly saying earlier this week that the issue would rank high on his list of priorities in the first year of his administration. Obama added he would make Net neutrality support among appointed Federal Communications Commissioners a priority.

The broadband market is really at an inflection point. And it's important to establish laws now because it will essentially set the ground rules for how the market will play out in the future.
--Tim Wu, professor, Columbia University Law School

"The broadband market is really at an inflection point," said Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia University Law School and a supporter of Net neutrality legislation. "And it's important to establish laws now because it will essentially set the ground rules for how the market will play out in the future."

Some supporters of Net neutrality claim that a 2005 Supreme Court decision that changed the regulatory environment for DSL and cable modem service gave too much freedom and control to the Internet service providers.

In the Brand X case the court refused to recognize cable modem service as a "telecommunications" service. Instead, it classified it as an "information" service. This ruling meant that cable operators were not bound to a requirement in the telecommunications service regulation that forced phone companies to provide open access to competitors on their networks. To keep cable and phone companies on equal footing, the FCC changed the classification of DSL service to also be an information service.

Net neutrality supporters say that this change in regulation gives cable operators and phone companies too much control over what applications and content travel across their networks. Large phone companies and cable operators, however, say that no new laws or regulations are needed to explicitly grant protection for Net neutrality. Instead, they believe that a free market is the best protection against abuse. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin agrees that no new regulation is needed.

But Net neutrality supporters point to these recent incidents as evidence that something needs to be done. The most glaring accusation of abuse is Comcast, which critics say is filtering and blocking BitTorrent peer-to-peer file-sharing traffic. Sites that use the protocol have been targeted by the movie industry to stop the illegal distribution of copyrighted video. But there are also many legal uses of BitTorrent.

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