It may have been the first and last hearing the US Senate holds on Net neutrality–the principle that Internet users should be able to access any web content or use any applications they choose, without restrictions or limitations imposed by an Internet service provider. In the time it takes to watch Wedding Crashers, nine experts on Tuesday galloped through testimony before a handful of Senate Commerce Committee members in a hearing room packed with telecommunications and cable lobbyists.
The experts largely fell into two camps. Representatives of major telephone and cable companies and conservative academics urged government to get out of the way, encourage the growth of high-speed Internet networks and enable Internet system operators to “recoup their investments” without statutory or regulatory constraints. On the opposing side were the Internet “evangelists” and innovators who urged Congress to enact into law longstanding principles that preserve an open Internet where no company can restrict any individual’s access to content or place barriers on any lawful application or activity.
Those representing telephone and cable companies promised that they would never–ever–interfere with the public’s ability to access any lawful information on the Internet. Walter McCormick Jr., president of the United States Telecom Association (USTA), pledged, “We will not block, impair or degrade content, applications or services” that customers want to access. “Our culture, our history, our business has been focused for more than a century on connecting our customers with those they choose.” He added that if a phone customer wants to call Sears, “We don’t connect them with Macy’s.”
Unfortunately, the heads of the companies that the USTA represents have not been making the same promises. Indeed, Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota noted that the Washington Post story he had read on Tuesday “while eating my Cheerios” cited Verizon vice president John Thorne accusing Google of “enjoying a free lunch” at the expense of Verizon and other network builders.
“Verizon accused Google of freeloading,” Dorgan said. “I’ve had both DSL and broadband from cable, and I’ve paid for [both of those services]…. This is not a free lunch for any one of these content providers, to come into my home or the home of anyone in this country. The access lines are being paid for by the consumer.”
Kyle McSlarrow, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, urged Congress to “let the marketplace develop, as it has, without government regulation.” The cable companies he represents, he said, won’t block access to content over the public Internet, but they do want the “ability to manage the network.”
The USTA’s McCormick stressed that Net neutrality “isn’t a problem that Congress needs to address. Consumers expect Internet freedom. And if we don’t provide it, then the consumer will choose to do business with someone else.”