HLS Hosts FCC On ‘Net Neutrality’

Legal scholars and technology executives spoke before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) yesterday at a public hearing at Harvard Law School on the role companies should have in regulating consumers’ Internet use.

The discussions, which attracted a standing-room only audience, were triggered by recent alleged abuses to net neutrality—the idea that Internet providers should not be able to block consumers’ access to Internet resources.

“The Internet is as much mine and yours as it is AT&T; and Comcast’s,” said Representative Edward J. Markey, a Democrat from Malden, Mass. who recently introduced a bill in the House to preserve net neutrality.

Commissioners said that these recent allegations may violate citizens’ fundamental right to freedom of communication.

“It’s not just an issue among companies, but it’s affecting the community as well,” said FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin, who graduated from the Law School in 1993.

Speakers discussed how the FCC should interpret the commission’s 2005 policy statement, which protects consumers’ rights to access Internet content, run applications, and connect legal devices of their choice, as well as to choose among network and application providers.

“Our job is to decide where to draw the line between discrimination and reasonable network management,” said FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps.

Recently, broadband provider Comcast—the U.S.’s largest cable company—came under fire for allegedly stalling uploads with peer-to-peer file sharing applications such as BitTorrent.

“The reason we are here today is because of allegations that some companies are violating these principals [of net neutrality],” Martin said. “We don’t take these allegations lightly.”

Commissioners said they believed that additional guidelines are necessary to clarify what constitutes reasonable network practices.

“The time has come for a specific, enforceable, non-discrimination principle by the FCC,” Copps said.

The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Law School is one of the sponsors of a petition that encourages the FCC to take a strong stance against Internet providers that discriminate by content.

“Comcast and its spokespersons suggested that its practice of degrading an application’s performance—using technology similar to censorship systems to the Chinese government—somehow constitutes ‘reasonable network management,’” the authors of the petition wrote. “The FCC must act now to resolve this controversy. Specifically, the FCC must act now to clarify that intentionally degrading an application or class of applications is not ‘reasonable network management’ under the FCC Policy Statement.”

Commissioners made light-hearted comments about the Cambridge location, and seemed glad to be holding a hearing outside of the Beltway.

“I think it’s important we get out of Washington,” FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein said.

But not everyone welcomed the FCC. A number of people gathered outside of the hearing in protest, condemning what they felt was the FCC’s discrimination against minority media ownership.

Members of the Harvard Black Law Students Association, the Boston branch of the NAACP, and the National Black Chamber of Commerce held a press conference outside the building, beneath a bright yellow banner reading “Stop the FCC’s War on Diversity.”

“We’re deeply concerned about any policy that can decrease minority involvement in the media,” said Kelley D. Coleman, president of the Harvard Black Law Students Association.

Members of the Boston-based Project: Think Different bore colorfully-decorated signs with slogans like “FCC, where is the public in your public interest?” and stood outside the building protesting the lack of accessibility of the FCC’s hearings.

But even the event’s protesters agreed that the discussion going on inside the building was significant.

“I think net neutrality is a no-brainer,” said Cara Lisa Powers, one of the protestors. “It needs to be protected.”

—Staff writer Lauren Kiel can be reached at lkiel@fas.harvard.edu.

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