Net neutrality debate stirs strong emotions

by Zack Spittler, the Daily Iowan

It's already happened in radio. It's even affected how some telephone companies connect their customers. Now Internet may follow suit.

In radio, for example, the record industry has a long history of throwing money at radio stations to get "top" artists their "due" airtime -- it's illegal and called payola. Recently, Sony BMG agreed to pay $10 million to the state of New York for "pay for play" arrangements with radio stations.

Now exchange a name such as "Coldplay" for "Yahoo," and this may soon happen on the Internet -- legally.

The issue is "net neutrality." The way things are now, any Internet user can pretty much access any site on the web at the same speed. Content is treated equally. But on June 8, a telecommunications bill essentially allowing the Internet to be "non-neutral" passed the U.S. House of Representatives; it is now before the Senate.

If the bill in question becomes a law, large Internet-service providers (the ones you pay to give you access to the Internet), such as AT&T, could charge a site such as Google to give its traffic a higher bandwidth priority, effectively making it run faster than one of its competitive sites, such as, for instance. Then, ostensibly, the public might visit Google more often because of its faster load time. Furthermore, smaller websites wouldn't have the same ability to compete, potentially reducing their site traffic.

With 7 million lines in service, AT&T is the nation's largest DSL service provider and an advocate for the proposed legislation. "In our view, the Internet has been and will be better off without onerous regulations that will prohibit innovation and investment," Claudia Jones, a representative from AT&T media relations, said on Wednesday. "We feel that the House and Senate video-franchise bills strike the right balance between ensuring that consumers have access to lawful content of their choosing and allowing companies the freedom to innovate."

Employees of local computer store Neo Computers, 702 S. Gilbert St., oppose the current legislation, and they have been handing out fliers promoting "net neutrality" to their customers. They say the legislation could hurt the Internet more than most people might expect.

"I don't think a lot of people would realize the difference, at first," said Ryan Meyer, Neo Computers' lead technician. "The real worry is further down the road."

In fact, there's a lot of "what-if" regarding these proposed regulations, and websites aren't the only things they could affect. Online video and Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP, a technology that uses the Internet to make phone calls, of which Vonage is the most notable provider) are seen by many as cornerstones of future web use. VOIPs are now finding themselves under the magnifying glass of the current Senate debates, as their profits could be directly affected by the proposed legislation.

Ben Anderson, the president of local Internet-service provider X-Wires, 17 S. Gilbert St., believes strongly in "net neutrality."

"Anything that abuses [non-net neutrality] and prioritizes any one commercial entity over another should be illegal," he said.

However, the Internet isn't necessarily neutral right now. In fact, Anderson volunteers that his firm not only slows but blocks certain content from reaching its customers: viruses. He said the debate now has become extremely bipolar in nature. People either argue completely in favor of net neutrality -- meaning they're for free information flow, viruses included -- or they're for the proposed way of picking and choosing content, which could be determined by the highest bidder.

But the 25-year-old Internet entrepreneur offers a compromise between the two schools of thought.

"I feel that as a provider, it's acceptable to manipulate general kinds of traffic -- but not specific kinds," Anderson said. For instance, X-Wires could give VOIP traffic in general priority over other kinds of Internet traffic, to improve clarity to the customers using the service. However, promoting Vonage over other VOIP companies shouldn't be allowed.

"I think that in order to make all the services that do or will run over the Internet work the best, you're going to have to do some non-neutral practices." Anderson said. "But, I think it should be done all within reason."

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