The US Justice Department late last week balked at proposed net neutrality laws, which would prohibit network operators from charging for faster delivery of their content or favoring certain content over others.
The department’s antitrust chiefs told the Federal Communications Commission such laws could hinder web development and consumer choices.
A number of companies offer services to provide faster delivery of content and/or to avoid some of the congestion and delay on the public Internet, said the DoJ in its filing to the FCC. Owners of network facilities have legitimate reasons to manage facilities in ways that lessen congestion and address public safety issues.
Indeed, phone companies AT&T and Verizon Communications, and cable operators such as Comcast, have argued that it would be especially beneficial to be able to charge more for some high-bandwidth services such as video. They claim that as more traffic flows across their broadband networks, it may not be possible for consumers to quickly access some Web sites, and that web companies and others should pay for better access.
But most major internet companies, including eBay, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, fear that the absence of net neutrality laws opens the door for a two-tiered Internet — with a fast lane for those willing to pay for priority content and a slow lane in which operators could compromise services to encourage a switch to the more profitable tier. Large broadband operators have pledged they would not degrade or block content or services.
While the FCC’s majority has not supported net neutrality legislation, last year it approved AT&T’s acquisition of BellSouth only on the condition that AT&T would maintain net neutrality of its broadband networks for two years.
In June, the Republican-controlled FCC recommended against net neutrality legislation for similar reasons as the DoJ. The commission has also said, in the past, that net neutrality rules were not necessary in the absence of widespread abuse and that it would deal with potential abuse on a case-by-base basis. The DoJ also said last week it had the power to take enforcement action when necessary.
However, the Open Internet Coalition, which includes eBay and Google, as well as various public policy advocacy factions, said after-the-fact policing will not serve the best interests of consumers.
The coalition also pointed to a lack of competition and consumer choice for broadband access in the US, and argued this market concentration was a reason it supports preemptive safeguards to ensure that cable and telephone companies do not destroy the internet as we know it.
Net neutrality proponents also argue that charging startup web companies extra fees so they can offer their customers video and high-speed services puts them at a competitive disadvantage against larger rivals with deeper pockets. Broadband operators counter that net neutrality laws would be a disincentive for them to invest further in high-speed networks.
Congress tried to pass net neutrality legislation last year and failed. US senators have put a similar bill in Congress this year, but the bill has yet to gain significant support on Capitol Hill.