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Google cheers anti-Comcast legislation

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Just after Comcast copped to throttling P2P traffic, a new net neutrality bill appeared on Capitol Hill.

Yesterday, US congressman Edward J. Markey, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunication and the Internet, introduced something called "the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008".

"[This bill] is designed to assess and promote Internet freedom for consumers and content providers," Representative Markey explained, in a canned statement. "Internet freedom generally embodies the notion that consumers and content providers should be free to send, receive, access and use the lawful applications, content, and services of their choice on broadband networks, possess the effective right to attach and use non-harmful devices to use in conjunction with their broadband services, and that content providers not be subjected to unreasonably discriminatory practices by broadband network providers."

In other words, Markey wants the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to play hardball with the likes of Comcast.

On the surface, the bill seems rather tame, discussing broadband Internet policies in very general terms. But many net neutrality advocates believe that if this bill passes, it would make it that much harder for Comcast and other American ISPs to throttle or block certain types of traffic.

Legal teeth

"It's quite a strong piece of legislation," says Timothy Karr, the campaign director for the public advocate Free Press. "It gives the FCC more federal statutory authority to act against the types of blocking that we've seen increasingly in the last six to nine months [We think he's talking about Comcast. -Ed]. It enshrines a very basic principle of non-discrimination in federal law. And that would give us the legal standing to actually prosecute the types of discriminatory practices we're seeing."

Yes, the FCC is currently investigating Comcast, but the company claims that its BitTorrent busting is A-OK according to the commission's 2005 Internet Policy Statement, which says ISPs are entitled to practice "reasonable network management".

Karr and other anti-Comcasters are worried the company will wriggle through this loophole. "The problem that we see at the FCC is that there remains a lack of clarity,"he says. "What is reasonable network management?"

Markey's bill doesn't try to answer that question. But it does attempt to add some new language to the Federal Communications Act that would specifically prohibit ISPs from "discriminating" against certain traffic. This revised Communications Act would guard against "unreasonable discriminatory favoritism for, or degradation of, content by 15 network operators based upon its source, ownership, 16 or destination on the Internet".

That's right, Markey wants to counter an FCC footnote that allows "reasonable network management" with a bill that prohibits "unreasonable discriminatory favoritism". But a federal law carries some weight, and those who speak Washingtonese assure us that this is a good thing. "Markey's legislation gives clarity on the issue," Karr says.

Net neut's heart and soul

Meanwhile, Google is pleased as punch that this bill would also require the FCC to arrange several "broadband summits" where average internet users could speak up on these topics.

"Internet users themselves will get a chance to answer those questions. From the start, the heart and soul of the movement for net neutrality has been the grassroots - the thousands and thousands of ordinary Americans who have already spoken up for Internet freedom on sites like Save The Internet and beyond," says Google policy analyst Derek Slater on the official Google Public Policy blog.

"Net neutrality is too often painted as just about particular companies' competing interests," Slater continues, "but that's missing the point. Rather, net neutrality and broadband policy are - and should be - about what's ultimately best for people, in terms of economic growth as well as the social benefit of empowering individuals to speak, create, and engage one another online using the wide panoply of innovations available to them."

Of course, the competing interest of certain companies also play a role. Otherwise, Slater wouldn't be posting to a Google Public Policy blog. But we're all for making the people heard. And hopefully these people will stick it to Comcast.

We acknowledge that Comcast has the right to a certain amount of network management. But clearly, the company is uninterested in policing its own practices - or keeping its customers informed of these practices.

When we asked the company what it thought of Markey's bill, it said it would rather keep quiet. ®

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