New group aims to 'save the Internet'

Coalition says FCC needs power to police Internet to ensure broadband providers follow "Net neutrality" rules.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
4 min read
Days before a congressional committee is set to vote on an overhaul of the nation's telecommunications policy, a broad coalition of media, consumer and Internet groups has organized behind a dramatic tagline: "Save the Internet."

Dozens of organizations ranging from the conservative-to-libertarian Gun Owners of America to the liberal group Moveon.org to the American Library Association, have just launched a Web site under the "Save the Internet" banner. During a Monday press conference call, supporters of the newly minted group at times adopted the tone of a pep rally.

"The fight for Internet freedom is now being waged in earnest," said Tim Karr, campaign director for Free Press, a media reform organization that opposes large media companies and organized the coalition. "On one side you have the public...on the other side you have the nation's largest telephone and cable companies, who have aligned with some in Congress to strip the Internet of the First Amendment."

At issue is a concept known as Net neutrality, also called network neutrality. It's a philosophy supported by Internet content providers such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon.com that would prohibit broadband providers from prioritizing certain types of Web traffic--such as streaming video or their own preferred content.

Large telephone and cable companies have argued against the need to put such principles into law, saying they're not interested in blocking sites or services but deserve the right to charge extra for such a "fast lane" to make their investments in bandwidth-hogging services and new technologies economically viable. Broadband providers have been spending billions to run fiber or faster links to American homes and businesses.

The latest version of a telecommunications reform bill, expected to go to a full committee vote in the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee this week, doesn't go far enough to ensure Net neutrality provisions, the Save the Internet coalition claims.

At an initial vote on that bill just before Congress' spring recess, a quartet of Democrats failed to secure passage of an amendment that said any content provider must be awarded bandwidth "with equivalent or better capability than the provider extends to itself or affiliated parties, and without the imposition of any charge." The Save the Internet Coalition said it hoped such an amendment would be more successful at the upcoming vote.

The current bill would require the Federal Communications Commission to vet all complaints of violations of the FCC's own Net neutrality principles within 90 days. It would also give the FCC the power to levy fines of up to $500,000 per violation.

The bill also contained explicit language denying the FCC the authority to make new rules on Net neutrality. Democrats and Net neutrality supporters have charged that lack of enforcement power would mean the FCC would be unable to deal with the topic flexibly.

The FCC's broad principles, which appeared in a document released last summer, don't protect against the kind of discrimination that Internet content providers fear could take hold, said Gigi Sohn, president of the advocacy group Public Knowledge. Those principles say that consumers should be able to access lawful content and run applications of their choice and connect whichever lawful devices they wish to the networks they use.

"You could have a system where I might be able to get my Vonage service but because Verizon has its own voice over Internet protocol service, they may degrade my Vonage service," she said. "So technically I could get a degraded Vonage service, still in keeping with principles, but I'm accessing a degraded service, and that's why a non-discrimination principle must be put in the law."

Companies like Verizon and politicians siding with them have argued that such concerns are largely hypothetical and that preemptive regulation would cause an undue burden as they make expensive investments in new, more advanced networks. At its Web site, the Save the Internet Coalition lists four examples of what it deemed discrimination by Internet service providers, though two of those examples occurred at the hands of Canadian providers, which arguably wouldn't face any repercussions from any new U.S. law.

Other critics of preemptive federal legislation have suggested that Net neutrality rules would give the FCC far too much power to regulate the Internet and micromanage what kind of network arrangements are permitted or not.

But even the specter of such discrimination is enough to warrant concern, said Craig Newmark, founder of the popular Craigslist classified site. "According to line workers I speak to at big telcos, the companies would use these new privileges to hurt the little guys," he told reporters on Monday's conference call, "and I don't think that should happen."