Web regulation 'entirely unwarranted'

The top United States government communications official said on Tuesday his agency has all the authority it needs to prevent internet service providers from discriminating against web surfers and that new legislation is unnecessary.

“I do not believe any additional regulations are needed at this time,” Kevin Martin, the head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), said at a hearing before the Senate commerce committee. “But I also believe that the commission has a responsibility to enforce the principles that it has already adopted.”

The FCC has conducted two hearings on “network management” following admissions by Comcast that it sometimes delayed file-sharing traffic for subscribers as a way to keep web traffic flowing.

The hearing was called at a time when the issue of “network neutrality”—the principle that people should be able to go where they choose on the internet without interference from network owners—has heated up.

The network neutrality debate has divided Congress, with Democrats largely in favour and Republicans mostly opposed, a point that became clearer at Tuesday’s committee meeting.

“It is a political division now and it’s getting more so,” said Senator Ted Stevens, a Republican. “It is unfortunate.” He said a return to “intense regulation” of the internet is “entirely unwarranted”.

The hearing included some star power, with the appearance of actress Justine Bateman, best known for her role on the TV sitcom Family Ties.
She is now a founding partner of a new online media venture.

“The idea of your site succeeding or failing based upon whether or not you paid the telecom companies enough to carry your material or allow quick access is appalling,” she told the committee.

Also speaking for a free-flowing internet was Patric Verrone, the president of the Writers’ Guild of America, West, which recently ended a 100-day strike that virtually paralysed US television production. The internet is a valuable organising tool for the writers, he said in an interview.

“When your employers are the same companies that control the media, it’s hard to get your message out,” Verrone said.

To maintain contact with one another during the strike, guild members used blog postings, email and videos. It is the success of that campaign that prompted Verrone to travel to Washington and push for legislation that he hopes will guarantee the internet’s status as an open forum for communication.

Verrone, a television writer and producer for more than 20 years, supports legislation proposed by senators Olympia Snowe, a Republican, and Byron Dorgan, a Democrat, that would force those who control internet service to treat all traffic equally.

Large network owners like cable and telecommunications companies are opposed to network neutrality legislation, saying it would add a layer of regulation that will hurt consumers. They say it is unnecessary and amounts to a solution in search of a problem.

Kyle McSlarrow, president and chief executive of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, described the picture painted by pro-net-neutrality commenters as “a complete fantasy”.

McSlarrow said of the tens of millions of people who use the internet every day, “no one is being blocked” and if they were, they could go to another service provider.

Martin told the panel that the FCC’s anti-discrimination Internet Policy Statement, approved in 2005, is enforceable and gives the commission adequate authority to protect consumers.

When the policy was approved, Martin had a different opinion, however.

In his statement at the time, he noted “policy statements do not establish rules nor are they enforceable documents” but that the commission decision “does reflect core beliefs that each member of this commission holds regarding how broadband internet access should function”.—Sapa-AP

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