Net neutrality becomes issue in presidential race

Senator Barack Obama will be asked to answer a question about supporting Net neutrality in an MTV interview on Monday.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read

Net Neutrality could soon get top billing in the upcoming 2008 U.S. presidential race.

Or at least, that's what the folks at MoveOn.org are hoping. A question about the issue will be asked of Senator Barack Obama on Monday during an MTV dialogue in Iowa. The event will be streamed live on the Internet at 1:30 p.m. EST and air on MTV at 7:00 p.m. EST.

MTV agreed to ask Obama the top-rated question submitted by a voter in the online video contest 10Questions.com. And the top-rated question is from a MoveOn member, former AT&T engineer Joe Niederberger.

Niederberger's question is this, "Would you make it a priority in your first year of office to reinstate Net neutrality as the law of the land? And would you pledge to only appoint FCC commissioners that support open Internet principles like Net neutrality?"

Net neutrality refers to a principle or a set of principles that would prevent Internet service providers from blocking or degrading certain kinds of traffic on their networks. The idea is that a large company like AT&T or Verizon could block or slow down IP packets carrying information that is being sent or received from a particular Web site or service. Recently cable operator Comcast has been accused of blocking BitTorrent traffic, but the company denies this.

Currently, there are no laws that specifically mandate that network operators keep their networks open. But supporters of Net neutrality claim that changes in the classification of broadband services by the Federal Communications Commission have put the openness of the Internet at risk.

The Federal Communications Commission under Republican chairman Kevin Martin claims that this is not the case. And he points to a set of principles adopted by the commission that encourage network operators to keep their networks open. But these are not regulations and there is no penalty for not complying.

Obviously, Net neutrality supporters don't think this is enough. Last year, hundreds of organizations mobilized people online to form the SavetheInternet.com Coalition. This group and others lobbied Congress for specific legislation to bar operators from blocking or degrading traffic on their networks. Even though the issue stirred up a lot of debate, no law protecting Net neutrality was passed. Now Congress has seemingly moved on to more pressing issues, such as the war in Iraq. For the most part, Net neutrality has fallen by the wayside and out of the news.

Niederberger and MoveOn hope to change that by bringing the issue to the forefront of the presidential race.

"The Internet is a place where people can read any newspaper they want to stay informed," Niederberger said in a phone interview. "They can express their opinions about topics like the war. And without Net neutrality that freedom of information is in danger. In general, shutting down freedom happens in small steps. That's why it is important to watch these things now."

All of the major Democratic candidates, Barak Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd, John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich, and Bill Richardson have all expressed support for Net neutrality. And so has Republican candidate Mike Huckabee .

But Niederberger's question will pinpoint specific action.

"In 2008, voters are looking for real leadership," said Adam Green, who leads MoveOn's Internet freedom campaign. "Any presidential candidate who boldly promises to reinstate Net neutrality during his or her first year in office, and to only appoint pro-neutrality FCC commissioners, will get tons of positive buzz online."

Still, the phone companies say there is no need for a specific law on Net neutrality. Speaking at conference in Santa Clara, California last week, James Cicconi, Senior Executive Vice President of External and Legislative Affairs for AT&T said that new legislation would only hurt innovation on the Internet. He said that the phone companies need to have the flexibility to manage traffic on their network. And new Net neutrality laws could prevent that from happening. He said that AT&T's network traffic doubled in 2006 from the previous year, largely from the use of more video from sites like YouTube. He added that AT&T spent $19 billion to upgrade and keep the network working so it could handle the traffic.

"There is this notion out there that all bits are created equal," he said. "But not all bits are created equal. Some bits carry porn while others carry critical information like interactive video for heart surgery. Treating all bits the same is a costly and inefficient use of bandwidth."

He went on to say that current antitrust laws protect consumers from phone companies and cable companies abusing their power to control the network for their own gain.

"If we degrade anybody's Internet traffic intentionally, we could be held accountable under antitrust laws," he said. "And also why would we want to do that? Selling service to customers is our business. The more traffic we have on our networks the more money we make. We just need to manage it effectively."

Cicconi warned politicians and lawmakers not to introduce new regulations or laws to protect Net neutrality.

"There is ample protection out there already," he said. "And I think the cure could be worse than the disease. From my experience, whenever you invite government in to regulate, they never get out. And it rarely works out the way you thought it would."