Net Neutrality Fight Gets Religious

A group of US religious and ethical organizations, including Morality in Media, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, and Faith 2 Action, has issued an open letter to the Senate Commerce Committee, expressing support for the current language of a key communications reform bill that has emerged from conference, and is soon to be introduced for debate on the Senate floor.

It is the bill around which the current debate on "net neutrality" -- whether to prohibit broadband service providers from being able to offer premium carriage services to larger content providers -- is centered.

Net neutrality has entered the public circle of debate mainly due to the efforts of both supporters and opponents of the COPE bill, who are working to leverage public involvement to advance their respective causes. But many are saying that, in so doing, both sides have clouded the issue so much that individuals are no longer certain on which side they stand, or why.

The letter begins by praising the Committee for having "recently resisted attempts by Senators who wanted to regulate the Internet, but rather, included language that would specifically protect our ability to communicate our message."

The attempts to which the letter refers include one last May by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R - Maine), joined by Democrats on the Committee, to advance language that would have explicitly prohibited an Internet service provider from downgrading the quality of service (QoS) of material from any content provider, on the basis of its bandwidth. In other words, an ISP couldn't make Facebook slower so that MySpace will be faster, even if it gets paid to do so.

The letter goes on to credit broadband service providers with having provided tools to their customers, enabling parents to monitor and filter the nature of Internet-sourced content. Next, it credits telecommunications and cable companies for "creating the high-speed networks we know as broadband."

The COPE bill, which replaced an earlier Senate bill last May that distinguished between providers of cable television service from those of broadband Internet service, essentially equates the two, although language recently added in conference includes new exceptions.

By equating the two types of service, the COPE bill aims to enable cable and satellite providers with the means to obtain national franchises, to provide both television and Internet service throughout the country. Under the current system in the US, cable franchises are generally awarded by states and municipalities on a territorial basis; and with few exceptions in certain states, franchisees are given exclusive access to the territories they serve.

Congress wants to establish a federal franchise system that gives it an income channel comparable to what states and local authorities are currently receiving, but it can only do so by current law if national franchises can compete fairly with existing state and municipal ones.

Knowing that cable companies might not be so intrigued by the prospect of guaranteed competition, the authors of the COPE bill's predecessor, including Sen. Ted Stevens (R - Alaska), created provisions which would have enabled national franchisees to create tiers of service for content providers, giving them a way to charge different content providers higher fees in exchange for premium bandwidth.

Cable companies have argued that it's the high bandwidth servers, like Yahoo and YouTube, that force them to upgrade their service; and if the content providers don't pay their share of the upgrade fees, then those costs will inevitably be passed on to consumers.

The language including these provisions has since been stricken from the bill, although attempts by Sen. Snowe and others to replace it with net neutrality provisions have all failed. Thus, COPE opponents assume that, by not explicitly prohibiting what they characterize as the "Internet fast lane," the bill as currently written implicitly permits it.

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