Supporters of “net neutrality,” the idea that all internet sites should be equally accessible to all web users, suffered a blow Sept. 6 when the Justice Department (DOJ) said internet service providers should be allowed to charge a fee for priority web traffic.

The department’s remarks were the latest in a string of recent developments suggesting that the push to enact net neutrality legislation this year is quickly fading. Still, education groups say they haven’t yet given up the fight to keep telecommunications companies from prioritizing traffic online.

DOJ told the Federal Communications Commission, which is reviewing high-speed internet practices, that it opposes net neutrality. Several phone and cable companies, such as AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., and Comcast Corp., have previously said they want the option to charge some users more money for loading certain content or web sites faster than others.

Net neutrality supporters, including Google and Yahoo, as well as many education groups, argue that network operators should treat all web services equally. The debate has huge implications for the delivery of broadband services, including online education.

DOJ said imposing a net neutrality regulation could hamper development of the internet and prevent service providers from upgrading or expanding their networks. It also could shift the “entire burden of implementing costly network expansions and improvements onto consumers,” the agency said in its Sept. 6 filing with the FCC.

Such a result could diminish or delay network expansion and improvement, it added.

The agency said providing different levels of service is common, efficient, and could satisfy consumers. As an example, it noted that the U.S. Postal Service charges customers for different guarantees and package delivery speeds, ranging from bulk mail to overnight delivery.

“Whether or not the same type of differentiated products and services will develop on the internet should be determined by market forces, not regulatory intervention,” DOJ said in its filing.

Supporters of internet regulation have said that, without net neutrality, phone and cable companies could discriminate against certain web sites and services. However, DOJ said it will continue to monitor and enforce any anticompetitive conduct to ensure a competitive broadband marketplace.

The agency’s filing was the latest blow to a movement described by many education groups as important to the future of online learning.

DOJ’s stance comes more than two months after Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Deborah Platt Majoras also cautioned policy makers not to enact net neutrality regulation. And net neutrality supporters have seen their momentum disappearing on Capitol Hill, too.

When Democrats came into power in Congress after the 2006 midterm elections, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others vowed to press forward with net neutrality legislation. But political observers agree many of the calls for net neutrality have subsided in the wake of a concession that AT&T made in seeking federal approval for its acquisition of BellSouth Corp. late last year. In that deal, AT&T pledged that it would not favor internet content providers who pay it more money for at least 30 months.

“The Democratic leadership understands their slim voting margin on this issue and have chosen to use their time more productively in other pressing issues, such as global warming and the Iraq war,” said Wendy Wigen, government relations officer for EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association that promotes information technology in higher education.

AT&T’s concession did defuse some of the rhetoric surrounding net neutrality, Wigen said. However, she said, it also delivered “a very sound definition of net neutrality that most sides can agree to and can serve as a starting point for making it permanent and enforceable law.”

Wigen said EDUCAUSE strongly disagrees with DOJ’s filing.

Allowing network operators to charge fees for priority service “goes against the basic principle of openness that has been a part of the internet since its conception,” she said. “Consumers and content providers should be allowed to buy better service by doing what they already can do when it is available–purchase a larger, faster connection.”

Allowing certain content providers to pay more for priority service that network operators would control through deep-packet inspection “opens up a Pandora’s box of issues involving freedom of speech, equal access to information, privacy and consumers’ rights,” Wigen told eSchool News.

She added: “The internet has become essential to our way of life and is too important to have its fate dictated by the latest business model brainstormed by the telephone and cable giants. There are no legal protections in place that can guarantee the good behavior of the operators of this public good. In contrast, regulations and strong national policy in other nations have spurred tremendous growth and investment in improved infrastructure. One has only to look at the cost-to-speed ratio available in most European and Asian countries, where regulation exists, to know we are going down the wrong path.”

Although net neutrality appears to be stalled for now, EDUCAUSE remains committed to lobbying for the concept, Wigen said.

“Net neutrality is not dead,” she said, “but we must be patient and use this time wisely to develop sound arguments and gather convincing evidence for the debate that most certainly lies ahead. When Congress decides the time is right to address this issue again, I suspect that you will see a much larger and formidable coalition develop around this issue.”

Links:

Justice Department

Federal Communications Commission

EDUCAUSE