So far, 2007 has been a jubilant year for proponents of network neutrality–the principle that Internet operators should handle all the data they transport the same way, without special “fast lanes” open only to those who can afford them. After a legislative stalemate in 2006, activists from groups such as SavetheInternet.com are celebrating new efforts in Congress to make network neutrality into law. They’re also celebrating an unexpected pledge from leading backbone operator AT&T to honor the principle, at least temporarily.
But the fight isn’t over. It’s still possible that certain types of tiered Internet access will emerge in the near future. That’s partly due to political and business realities: no bill is assured of passage in the still fractious 110th Congress, and AT&T’s concessions contain loopholes that allow the company to move forward with premium services such as U-Verse, which is all about extending fiber-optic fast lanes to customers’ homes. But the situation is also a consequence of the march of technology. New bandwidth-intensive applications such as YouTube-style video downloads and peer-to-peer file sharing are clogging the network so quickly, researchers say, that service providers may be forced to start charging more to carry certain types of data.
Public discussion of net neutrality dates back to 2002, when Columbia law professor Tim Wu, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, and others warned of the growing business pressures on Internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict less lucrative types of Internet usage and charge more for others. But the threat was largely theoretical until late 2005, when Ed Whitacre, CEO of SBC (soon to be renamed AT&T), implied in a Business Week interview that SBC wanted to charge Internet companies such as Yahoo, Google, and Vonage extra for carrying their data over SBC’s network to SBC broadband customers, even if the companies had already paid access fees to their own ISPs. “Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain’t going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it,” Whitacre said.
The remarks galvanized online content companies and free-speech advocates to push for legislation enshrining network neutrality, including provisions to prevent ISPs from treating data differently depending on its source, as Whitacre seemed to be proposing. SavetheInternet.com, a coalition of strange bedfellows including MoveOn.org, Common Cause, the United Church of Christ, and Gun Owners of America, spent much of 2006 lobbying to get network-neutrality protections into major bills overhauling the Telecommunications Act of 1934. The phone and cable companies fought back, spending millions on lobbying efforts, and House and Senate Republicans repeatedly blocked the network-neutrality amendments. But in the end, Congress adjourned without acting on a final telecommunications bill.