Web `neutrality' proviso sought

Phone, cable firms want right to give some Internet sites priority in speed


WASHINGTON -- Internet users have grown accustomed to wandering independently in cyberspace.

But now, telephone and cable companies are arguing that they should be able to let some Internet sites work much better than others, making them more attractive to Web surfers.

For example, if Google Inc. were willing to pay, then an Internet service provider would allow that search engine to return results more quickly than any other.

The notion is sparking a fight, with companies asking Congress to guarantee that providers of high-speed Internet service will preserve "network neutrality." They want lawmakers to approve rules requiring broadband providers to give equal access to all Web sites and services, whether they involve voice, video or data.

"This is huge, the future of the Internet is at stake," said Jonathan Rintels, head of the Center for Creative Voices in Media, an advocacy group for writers, producers and other artists.

Phone companies and cable companies argue that heavy-handed government rules would discourage them from building the infrastructure needed for advanced online services. They say they are making multibillion-dollar investments in equipment, and want to be free to reap big rewards for taking big risks.

William Smith, chief technology officer for BellSouth Corp., recently met with reporters in Washington to defend his company's desire to "prioritize" services, depending upon which content providers are affiliated with BellSouth.

He said BellSouth would not block access to Web content or services, but would use its technology to identify which "packets" of content should be allowed to move more quickly to customers.

All sorts of companies routinely charge for higher-quality performance, he said: "If I go to the airport, I can buy a coach standby ticket or a first-class ticket."

Opponents are outraged at the thought of giving Internet service providers the power to influence Web users' choices.

Cerf objects

Computer networking pioneer Vinton Cerf, revered by many as the "father of the Internet," last month asked members of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee to rethink any legislation that would not contain tough neutrality provisions.

"Telephone companies cannot tell consumers who they can call; network operators should not dictate what people can do online," Cerf, now a vice president at Google, said in a letter.

This position is backed by independent Internet service providers, such as Atlanta-based EarthLink Inc., which has called for stringent neutrality rules.

EarthLink would not object to phone companies offering "different speeds and different pricing of Internet service ... to all consumers to accomplish network management," an executive told a House hearing last month.

But, "Once a consumer has purchased the right to use the express lane, they should be able to use that express lane for all applications, not just those applications their ... provider would prefer."

Political divide

In Congress, positions on the issue have split largely along party lines, with Democrats demanding a greater commitment to neutrality.

Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said at the November hearing that the Internet so far has been "a wonderfully chaotic, open, worldwide network, a platform for innovation and an economic engine for the country."

In the Senate, commerce committee Chairman Ted Stevens, an Alaskan Republican, has not yet introduced legislation, but scheduled a "net neutrality" hearing for Feb. 7.

Marilyn Geewax writes for Cox News Service.

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