A feud between big network companies that has blacked out swaths of the Internet for thousands of people is prompting calls for government involvement, and may help trigger a rewrite of telecommunications laws affecting the Net.
On Wednesday, Internet backbone company Level 3 Communications cut off a direct link to a peer, Cogent Communications, as the result of a long-simmering contract dispute. The action left many customers on both sides unable to reach Web sites or send e-mail to people who used the other company's network until the connection was restored late on Friday.
The unilateral action, which came without warning to most customers, has prompted consumer advocates to call for protections against the interruption of basic Internet traffic. At least one influential congressman says he will try to add safeguards against this type of situation into an ongoing, major rewrite of the nation's telecommunications laws.
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Influential Rep. Rick Boucher wants to amend the Telecommunications Act to deal with feuding Internet companies.
Boucher's not alone in being upset over the Net blackout caused by a spat between Level 3 and Cogent. Consumer advocates and others are also calling for a basic set of rules that would keep traffic flowing.
"I think that the situation has now gotten to point where some measure of federal assurance for the interconnection of these networks, and the charging of prices that are reasonable in all circumstances, is required," said Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., who sits on the House committee handling telecommunications law.
The three-day outage has highlighted a weak point in the Internet--a network technically built to withstand hurricanes and nuclear attack, but which can break down in places as a result of private companies' billing disputes.
The outage revolves around an arrangement called "peering," in which two big networks of roughly equal size agree to exchange data traffic without charging each other money. Smaller companies typically have to buy the right to connect to larger networks to exchange traffic.
In this case, Level 3 contended that it is larger than Cogent, so the smaller company should pay it for the right to connect, rather than maintaining the free "peering" relationship. A Level 3 representative said Cogent had been warned more than 90 days ago that the network cutoff would happen, unless Cogent made a new arrangement.
Cogent executives have fought back, saying the two networks are indeed of similar size and that they should not have to pay to exchange traffic.
Because both companies rely primarily on these direct connections, once Level 3 shut off the exchange of traffic, there was no way for data to flow between customers on the two networks. That meant that many customers--including many businesses, subscribers to Time Warner's Road Runner cable modem service, and universities including Harvard--were left without access to some Web sites, or have been unable to exchange e-mail with some people.
Can someone step in?
Despite the certain inconvenience--and in some cases, potential business hardship--suffered by customers as a result of the situation, experts say there is little recourse for regulatory bodies under today's law.
Since the beginning of the Internet's development, data traffic has been carried primarily by networks owned by private companies, which use private contracts to govern agreements as to how they exchange data across the boundaries of those networks. Most in the technology industry have fought hard to keep any regulation away from the Internet as it has developed.
However, as the Net has evolved from an academic and research curiosity into a vital part of the world's commercial
and communications infrastructure, some have called for a basic set of rules that would keep traffic flowing.
Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, compares the state of today's Internet to the development of roads, or the creation of national telephone networks 100 years ago. Government acted in both cases to ensure the free flow of economically important traffic, he said.
"There comes a point where some of these functionalities, such as the seamless interoperation of the Internet, are too important to leave to the private interest of businesses," Cooper said. "We like to think that people won't do antisocial things, but when push comes to shove they will defend their economic interests even at the expense of the public."
Cooper added that he is worried that similar disagreements over "peering" relationships could evolve over the next year, as SBC Communications buys AT&T and Verizon Communications acquires MCI. Those deals will make the resulting companies far larger than their erstwhile peers, and may prompt them to ask smaller companies for money to exchange traffic, he said.
Congressman Boucher said that he would introduce language that would create a "right of interconnection" between data network companies, in an effort to avoid situations like this one. Under his idea, billing disputes that could not be resolved by the companies would be taken to the Federal Communications Commission for resolution.
The measure would not give the FCC new power to write rules governing network interconnection but would simply give the body a "traffic cop" role, ensuring that interconnection prices and agreements were reasonable, Boucher said.
House committee drafts of the telecommunications law revision already outline a new role for the FCC in mediating some connection disputes, such as between Internet voice service providers.
The idea of new rules, even mild ones, worries traditional foes of regulations. Lawyer and analyst Braden Cox, of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said an FCC mediation could be tainted by political forces and would undermine private negotiations.
"If it was a government mandated process, it's not really mediation," Cox said. "This is something that the market can rectify. Angry consumers can push (the companies forward) better than the FCC could."
Cogent executives say their company--like most Internet companies--is wary of any new regulations that might stem from its situation. But they say they would like to see the FCC, or any other body, help restart negotiations to bring the current situation to an end.
"We are happy with a world that is mostly unregulated," Cogent Chief Legal Officer Bob Beury said. "What we would welcome is good offices of the FCC in encouraging Level 3 to open the Internet back up, and in bringing us all back to the table to address this issue."