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We can't be neutral on net neutrality

The snooze-worthy phrase is about something vital to all: whether the companies that control the pipes through which data flow can dictate terms to the websites that originate the data.

August 30, 2009|DAVID LAZARUS

The new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Julius Genachowski, didn't pussyfoot around last week when he was asked to explain the Obama administration's stance on net neutrality.

"One thing I would say so that there is no confusion out there is that this FCC will support net neutrality and will enforce any violation of net neutrality principles," he declared.

If you're like Toluca Lake resident David Larson, who describes himself as a frequent Internet user, that sort of talk only leaves you scratching your head.

"I have a vague idea what net neutrality means," he told me, "but I'm not sure."

OK, you've come to the right place.

"Net neutrality is what every Internet user takes for granted when they go online," said Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press, a nonprofit advocacy group that focuses on communications issues.

"It simply means there are no gatekeepers. Any consumer can access any content without discrimination by the network owner."

What he's referring to is a pay-for-play system that would allow network operators -- phone companies, cable companies -- to decide for themselves which online content gets preferential treatment.

That's not how things are now. But if the telecom heavyweights have their way, it could be.

In effect, the debate over net neutrality -- short for "network neutrality" -- is a debate over whether the companies that own the pipes through which data flow can dictate terms to the websites that originate the data.

Telecom companies contend that they should be able to charge bandwidth-heavy content providers such as a movie-download service.

Cable giants Time Warner Cable Inc. and Comcast Corp. referred questions about their net neutrality stance to the National Cable and Telecommunications Assn., an industry group.

The association's website says government regulators should stand back and allow companies like Time Warner and Comcast to decide what's best for Internet users.

"The current marketplace is working well to bring consumers the services and features they want at prices they can afford," it says.

"Lawmakers should be very reluctant to replace that flexible, market-driven success story with a system of intrusive regulation."

For its part, Verizon Communications Inc. referred questions to the U.S. Telecom Assn., another industry group. Its website calls the prospect of net neutrality legislation an "unnecessary intervention" that "would delay the arrival of life-enhancing technological advances."

That's one way of looking at it. Another is that telcos want to sell VIP treatment to content providers that can afford it.

Let's say Netflix pays a fee to network operators so that its movies download faster to people's computers. One result is that while Netflix's content sails along in the fast lane, other content would be bumped to the slow lane.

The Internet's various junctions can handle only so much data at any given moment.

Network operators want to set priorities for users, rather than letting all data flow freely and equally.

At the same time, a pay-for-play system would create a tier of "super providers" that enjoy a competitive edge over rivals that lack the resources for speedier service. This also would make it harder for entrepreneurs to even enter the market.

"You're essentially ghettoizing Internet content that cannot pay to play," said Scott at Free Press.

Last year, the FCC ruled that Comcast couldn't stop Internet users from accessing BitTorrent, a popular file-sharing site. Comcast had contended that it needed to fence off BitTorrent to reduce network congestion.

The company subsequently went to federal court to appeal the FCC's decision. The case is pending.

No matter how the court rules, many observers believe it's just a matter of time before lawmakers step in to decide once and for all who calls the shots online -- network operators or Internet users.

The Obama administration has served notice on where it stands. If you want FCC Chairman Genachowski to know your position, shoot him an e-mail at julius.genachowski@ fcc.gov.

For the moment, your Internet service provider can't stop you.

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No more robocalls?

Also on the telecom front, the Federal Trade Commission announced last week that it was banning most "robocalls," those irritating recorded messages from telemarketers and others.

That's swell, as far as it goes. Unfortunately, it doesn't go far enough.

While the FTC's new rule, which takes effect Tuesday, will block most unsolicited sales pitches from private companies and their telemarketing minions, there are a bunch of exceptions that will permit the worst offenders to stay in the game.

For example, politicians will still be free to unleash robocalls on people's homes. This is especially annoying around election time, when the likes of former President Clinton or L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa check in robotically with electoral advice.

Also exempt from the ban are banks, phone companies, insurers, charities, debt collectors and survey takers. Most of these guys fall under different regulators.

So an A for effort to our friends at the FTC. But until other government agencies play ball, it still isn't safe to pick up the phone.

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David Lazarus' column runs Wednesdays and Sundays.

Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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latimes.com/lazarus/internet

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