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IDG News Service - WASHINGTON - The U.S. government needs to ensure that Internet applications and content are free from discrimination by broadband providers by embracing a policy of "network neutrality," several Internet rights advocates said Friday.
Proponents of a network neutrality policy argue that without a federal policy, broadband providers could decide to stop certain content and services from being carried on their pipes. Among the backers of a network neutrality policy speaking Friday at a Consumer Federation of America event in Washington, D.C., were Vinton Cerf, co-designer of TCP/IP, and Lawrence Lessig, Internet law professor and author.
Such a policy is needed to stop broadband providers from banning such applications as Wi-Fi or virtual private networks, both of which have been prohibited by some Internet service providers in the past, network neutrality advocates said. "You should apply this test," said Andrew McLaughlin, senior policy counsel for Google, a backer of a network neutrality policy. "If it bothers you when China does it, it should bother you when your local cable broadband company does it."
While there's no push to adopt a network neutrality policy in Congress, the concept has generated debate at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in recent months. In February, FCC Chairman Michael Powell advocated "four freedoms" for Internet users, including the freedom to access content and to use applications, but he advocated a market-driven approach instead of a national policy.
But others say the Internet is at risk without government intervention. "This Internet may not be the one we know in the future," said FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, speaking at the forum Friday. "There are threats to it out there... Entrenched interests are already jockeying to constrain the openness that has been the Internet's defining hallmark, and they are lobbying the FCC to aid and abet them."
But some broadband providers and Internet deregulation advocates say a government policy is unneeded because broadband providers, including cable and DSL providers, don't discriminate against content. "The proponents of network neutrality regulations have yet to show there's a problem," said Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA). "It's truly a solution in search of a problem."
The NCTA also questions whether a network neutrality policy would prohibit broadband providers from partnering with providers of Internet content and applications, although some backers of network neutrality, such as Yahoo, already have partnerships with ISPs.
"It's so vaguely defined," Dietz said of network neutrality. "There are some concerns about this vague definition of regulation for the Internet."
The marketplace should take care of any discriminatory policies that broadband providers implement, added Adam Thierer, director of telecommunications studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. A small number of providers did try to block services such as Wi-Fi when those services first came out, but consumers protested, and those policies were abandoned, Thierer said. Broadband providers that attempt to institute such restrictive policies now would lose customers, he added.