“We have increasingly big interests in this country today, cable and phone companies and others, who want to be gatekeepers and have toll charges on the Internet,” Dorgan said in a videotaped statement about the bill. “They’d like to say to content providers, ‘If you want to go on the information superhighway you’re going to have to pay us extra money.’ That is, in my judgment, dangerous, because somewhere out in this country, there are a couple of people, a couple of college students in a dorm room, perhaps, who have a great idea, the next new thing, and the only way they are going to take that innovation out onto the Internet is if there is someone out there [who] is not discriminating against the new businesses, the little businesses.”
The Dorgan-Snowe bill–cosponsored by Senators Hilary Rodham Clinton (D-New York), Barack Obama (D-Illinois), and John Kerry (D-Massachusetts)–now awaits consideration by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. No comparable bill has yet surfaced in the House of Representatives, but House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell (D-MI) told reporters this week that net-neutrality legislation would be a “high priority” of the House in 2007. Any such legislation, however, seems likely to stir renewed opposition from the telecommunications lobby.
The single biggest future barrier for advocates of strict network neutrality could be simple technological change. The Internet’s newest killer apps–digital video, Voice over IP, and online gaming–chew up much more of the ISPs’ available bandwidth than previous generations of applications did. Video is the biggest bandwidth hog, and it isn’t just coming from commercial sites like iTunes and YouTube. It’s also generated by consumers, who are exchanging unprecedented amounts of video and other data over peer-to-peer file-sharing networks such as BitTorrent but are still paying flat monthly access fees.
Networking researchers say it’s unrealistic to expect ISPs to transport all this extra data for free. “The guys who move these huge amounts of data around have to be compensated somehow,” says Hui Zhang, a Columbia University computer scientist who heads a startup, Rinera Networks, that’s focused on giving ISPs more control over the data flowing through their networks. “This whole discussion about net neutrality is going to have to lead to another discussion about usage-based charging.”