Think tank forum says Net neutrality equals property theft

Laws prohibiting broadband providers from blocking or slowingservice to competing Web sites or online applications would amountto government-sanctioned property theft, speakers said Thursday ata conservative think-tank forum.

Speakers affiliated with Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF),promoting its own bill to deregulate broadband providers,criticized net neutrality bills, which would prohibit broadbandproviders such as AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp. from blocking orslowing services to competing services such as VOIP (voice overInternet Protocol).

“There’s nothing neutral about net neutrality,” said JeffreyEisenach, chairman of the consulting firm CapAnalysis Group LLC andco-founder of PFF. “Net neutrality is, in fact, the theft ofproperty rights from [broadband] infrastructure providers. It’ssimple regulatory theft — the transfer of ownership from one groupof people to another group of people.”

A net neutrality law isn’t needed because large broadband providershaven’t discriminated against competing Web content, added KyleMcSlarrow, president and chief executive officer of the NationalCable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), a trade group forcable television and broadband providers.

Many U.S. residents will soon have more broadband options,including Wi-Fi networks and broadband over power lines, allowingthem to switch services, he said. “They’re about to have a lot morechoices around the corner,” McSlarrow said.

Proponents of a net neutrality law, including Internet companiessuch as Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc., say broadband providers will betempted to discriminate against competing products without someregulation. BellSouth Corp. has proposed charging Internetcompanies extra to deliver faster customer access to their Websites or applications, saying it needs to find new ways to pay forimprovements to its broadband networks. Net neutrality proponentssay such a business plan would create an Internet with tollbooths.

Also, broadband providers today have few competitors — about halfof all U.S. residents have the choice of two broadband providers,and the rest have one or none, said Gigi Sohn, president andcofounder of Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group.

“If we’re in a situation in the future where we’re talking aboutfour or five [competitors], maybe we don’t need to talk about netneutrality,” she said. “We are so far from havingcompetition.”

PFF is pushing a bill, called the Digital Age Communications Act orDACA, that would deregulate telecom providers and take away mostU.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authority to createforward-looking rules for the telecom industry. The bill, largelywritten by PFF in 2005, would limit the FCC on net neutralityissues to investigating consumer complaints about unfaircompetitive practices.

Senator Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, introducedDACA in December. On the other side, Senator Ron Wyden, an OregonDemocrat, on March 2 introduced a bill requiring net neutrality andDemocrats in the House of Representatives are pushing for netneutrality provisions to be included in a House telecom reformbill.

Sohn, the lone advocate of net neutrality on the PFF forum panel,called DACA’s language allowing the FCC to investigation unfaircompetition “vague.” She called on Congress to create some limitedrules so broadband providers and customers know what toexpect.

“They’re just two different visions of the Internet,” Sohn said. “Isee the Internet as something that gives people the power, for thefirst time ever, to have a megaphone. These guys want to make aclosed system.”

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