VOA Special English – Proposals Intensify Debate on Net Neutrality

This is the VOA Special English Economics Report.

“Information wants to be free,” the saying goes. But the debate over net neutrality could define how free the exchange of information is going to be in the future.

Net neutrality is the idea that everything on the Internet should be treated equally. That sounds simple. But the issue is a complex mix of technical, business, political and legal questions.

In the United States, communication law is enforced by the Federal Communications Commission. Since two thousand five, the FCC has used four policy principles to guide its enforcement in cases related to the Internet.

The policy statement says consumers must be able to get the lawful content, applications and services of their choice. Users must also be able to connect their choice of devices that are legal and do not harm the network. Another principle supports competition.

In September, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski proposed two more. One would say Internet providers could not discriminate against content or applications. The other would require that they explain how they manage their networks. The FCC chairman also wants to extend all six principles to wireless carriers now that their phones access the Internet. And he wants to make the principles into rules. In October, he will seek to begin the process, which starts with collecting public comment.

The new proposals have roots in disputes involving two companies. In two thousand seven, Verizon refused to make it easier for an abortion rights group to send text messages to its supporters. Verizon said it did not accept programs on issues like abortion or war, but it quickly changed its decision.

And last year, a divided FCC ruled against Comcast for interfering with traffic to a lawful music and video sharing site. At first, Comcast denied it, but then defended its actions as “reasonable network management.” Critics said Comcast was trying to block competition with its cable video programming.

Chairman Genachowski says a “free and open Internet” must be safeguarded. But providers say they sometimes have to block sites to prevent abuse. And a big wireless carrier, AT&T, calls extending the net neutrality policy “a risky experiment” with American investment in high-speed Internet.

There is also debate about the desire of some Internet providers to offer special treatment to sites willing to pay for it. That goes against the custom of treating all sites neutrally.

And that’s the VOA Special English Economics Report.

(Adapted from a radio program broadcast on October 20, 2009)