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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Policing the Net

    The following editorial appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Friday, April 9:


    Comcast Corp. scored a major court victory last week over how it and other Internet providers self-police traffic on the Web. But the long-term impact of the ruling is less clear.

    Consumer groups and some Democrats are already calling on Congress to pass legislation that gives the Federal Communications Commission more authority over big Internet providers.

    That’s all the more reason why Comcast, Verizon Communications Inc., AT&T Inc., and other Internet providers must ensure a level playing field for all Web users — or, in computer speak, “”Net neutrality.””

    Indeed, cable and telecommunications companies say they have no plans to block Web users whose high-volume downloads could clog the network pipe and slow surfing for others. That’s good news for maintaining what Philadelphia-based Comcast calls “”an open and vibrant Internet.””

    A unanimous, three-judge decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia declared that the FCC had limited power to regulate the Web. That’s a setback for the agency’s efforts to police the Internet and look out for the interests of consumers.

    The FCC has sought to enforce the concept of Net neutrality, under which all Web traffic travels along the same road. This ruling means the agency now has no legal authority to do so.

    Consumers instead will have to rely on the voluntary pledges of Internet providers that Web access won’t be divided into fast and slow lanes. Or that access to some sites won’t be blocked. The downside of voluntary pledges, of course, is that Internet providers could change course.

    Companies like Amazon Inc. and Google Inc. worry that Internet providers may restrict certain content or charge more to deliver high-speed video.

    The FCC accused Comcast of slowing Web traffic to some customers downloading large file-sharing services. The cable giant challenged the FCC’s findings, prompting the latest court ruling.

    Comcast and other Internet providers say the ruling doesn’t prevent the FCC from protecting consumers.

    And there’s no consensus among the sharply divided lawmakers in Washington to pass new regulations. Republicans largely oppose Net neutrality rules, while Democrats such as Sen.John Kerry, D-Mass., say Congress may need to act.

    So it will be important for the FCC, Internet watchdogs, and consumer groups to closely monitor whether Internet users in fact are being treated fairly.

    As long as Comcast, Verizon, and other providers continue to pass such scrutiny by not blocking Web sites, consumers can be relatively confident they’re getting a fair shake.

    A thornier problem for the nation as a whole is that the FCC lacks the legal authority to move ahead with the Obama administration’s laudable effort to expand access to high-speed Internet service.

    Without a legal means to require funding for the national broadband plan put out by the administration in March, it’s unlikely that Internet service will be extended to rural and poor households or that the higher Web speeds being sought will be achieved.

    Since it’s in the United States’ economic interest to pursue greater broadband access, the White House, FCC, and Congress need to work on a plan to make sure that Web access continues to grow.

    Their goal should be to preserve the Internet as a marketplace for ideas and innovation — and one that’s accessible to all.

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