Groups push alternate 'Net neutrality proposals

To advance the 'Net neutrality debate in the U.S. Congress, two groups have offered separate proposals to prohibit broadband providers from discriminating against competing Internet content, while letting providers separate part of their networks for specialized products.

Civil liberties advocacy groups, the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and New Yorkers for Fair Use, composed of businesspeople and technology advocates, both released 'Net neutrality proposals Tuesday, two days before the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is set to debate the issue as part of a hearing to amend a wide-ranging communications bill.

The proposals differ in their approaches, but both would let broadband providers, such as AT&T and Comcast, separate part of their broadband pipes for services they or their partners offer. On the public Internet, however, broadband providers would be required to treat all content equally.

The CDT wants a "narrowly tailored" set of 'Net neutrality rules, even though large broadband providers have questioned the need for new regulations, said Leslie Harris, CDT's executive director. Broadband providers have said there's no need for new rules because there's no evidence of their blocking or impairing competing content, but a lack of broadband competition makes for a "significant risk" of that happening, Harris said.

If Congress fails to pass a 'Net neutrality law now, it will be difficult to come back later and force broadband providers to change their business plans retroactively if problems do occur, she said. "In our view, the Internet is too important -- the openness of the Internet, the democratic platform it creates, the economic engine it creates -- to take that level of risk," Harris added.

The CDT proposal would require broadband providers to treat all Internet content and services equally. At the same time, the providers could experiment with private network services where they could make exclusive agreements -- a practice some 'Net neutrality advocates object to -- with services such as broadband video.

The CDT plan would let Congress monitor the Internet for evidence of discriminatory treatment.

The second proposal, authored by Seth Johnson, a member of New Yorkers for Fair Use, also would let providers offer tiered services, but they would not be able to classify them as Internet services if they discriminate against competing content.

Broadband services that divide content sent over the Internet would destroy the standards that are the foundation of the current Internet, Johnson said. If broadband providers set their own transport standards, the Internet would stop being a public medium, he said.

Among those endorsing the Johnson proposal are David P. Reed, a contributor to the original IP design; Miles R. Fidelman, president of The Center for Civic Networking; and Peter D. Junger, law professor emeritus at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Congress needs to clarify the meaning of Internet connectivity, the Johnson group said in an e-mail sent Tuesday.

"In effect, under the present circumstances, the system of developing specifications, which involves the writing and review of formal documents known as RFCs, which has held since the beginning of the Internet, would be tossed out by a few large providers and equipment manufacturers and replaced by corporate fiat," the group said. "IP-layer neutrality is not a property of the Internet. It is the Internet."

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