Net Neutrality Hearing Hits Silicon Valley

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2008

Silicon Valley high-tech entrepreneurs told the Federal Communications Commission yesterday that there needed to be more oversight of phone and cable companies at the agency's second off-site hearing on broadband Internet rules.

The agency heard from legal scholars, Web start-ups, the Christian Coalition and the Songwriters Guild of America, and debated the impact of Web regulation on high-tech innovation and investments, copyright protections and freedom of speech.

At issue is whether the Internet needs rules that mandate it remain open and unfettered by network operators. On one hand, allowing network controls could prevent the sharing of copyright material online. On the other, proponents of openness rules say allowing phone and cable companies to restrict content could unfairly limit consumers.

"The Internet connects people all over the world in a manner and scope of ease that is impossible if it were not online," said Michelle Combs, vice president of the Christian Coalition, a proponent of rules that would force Internet providers to keep their networks open to content. "Organizations like the Christian Coalition should use the Internet to communicate with our members and worldwide audience without snooping or blocking or slowing down," she said at the hearing at Stanford Law School.

The agency's first hearing in Cambridge, Mass., in February was inspired by complaints that cable provider Comcast had delayed file-sharing traffic over its network. That practice, acknowledged by Comcast, prompted public-advocacy groups to push for new rules to prevent Internet providers from discriminating against some forms of content.

However, none of the largest service providers -- Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and Time Warner -- attended the hearing yesterday, despite requests by the FCC to participate, according to FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin.

Comcast said in a statement: "We felt issues specific to us were well covered at the first hearing and the focus of this event should be broader than any individual company's issues."

Martin urged the FCC to evaluate the issue in the narrower context of Comcast's case. But yesterday's panelists took a broader view of net neutrality rules and how, if enacted, such policies could affect consumers.

"The FCC is trying to figure out what are the broader implications of this issue, a lot of which doesn't even fall under the jurisdiction of the agency," said Carol Mattey, a former FCC official who is a managing director at Deloitte & Touche.

Venture capitalists "are investing money in the future," said Larry Lessig, a professor of law at Stanford University and one of the original advocates for net neutrality. "If they believe the platform will be controlled tomorrow, there will be less investment today."

The two Democratic commissioners, Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein, indicated they were sympathetic to Lessig's concerns. Adelstein said he met with venture capitalists who stressed the need for clearer rules that could be enforced on network operators, and Copps said he would support such regulations.

Comcast last month agreed to work with BitTorrent, the file-sharing application provider that it had been targeting with its network management practices. Comcast also said earlier this week that it would work to establish a "Bill of Rights and Responsibilities" for network operators and consumers who use such technology.

But advocacy groups including Public Knowledge say that the industry proposing its own solutions won't go far enough to protect consumer interests.

"The Comcast case is a bellwether that will guide our communications system for a generation," said Ben Scott, the head of policy for public interest group Free Press, in the hearing. "That is why it has been the focus of so much money, influence and attention."

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