Friday, August 10, 2007

Program: Net Neutrality--The Great US and Global Debate--What it is About and Why Your Clients Should Care

Hank Judy and Tom Laudise, co-chairs of the Internet Law Subcommittee, gathered a first-class panel of speakers for the Net Neutrality program held on Friday morning at the 2007 Annual Meeting. The program was sponsored by the Business Section Technology Committee, and co-sponsored by the Cyberspace Committee and the Section of Science and Technology.

Greg Luib from the FTC first gave a helpful overview of the debate, which does require some technological background to follow and he gave it the yeoman's effort to teach a bunch of lawyers how routers work. My own common sense suggests that trying to summarize that description is unwise, particularly since one of Greg's points was that

Then, the debate began. Examples on one side -- Imagine you placed a phone call to reach your local pizza joint, and the phone company suggests that instead of your choice of pizza it might be nicer if you tried their chosen pizza provider, but if you really want to talk to your original joint please hold for three minutes (while others are already placing their orders for hot juicy pizzas from the preferred pizza provider, or PPP). The stronger statements were along the lines of "Don't break the Internet." The argument is that by ensuring that even the smallest of new content provider can get access to the Internet consumer, we can have a chance to allow a garage company of today to become an important player, be it by financial success to become the next Google, or be it by having an ability to reach people it couldn't otherwise reach through traditional media or means of communication.

On the other side of the debate, it was suggested that it is over-reacting to enter into regulation prior to knowing if there is a harm to be resolved, as well as questioning if consumers are being harmed in any of the discussed scenarios. "Balancing the risks is a complex empirical question." Another primary argument is that the ability to add new networks, and create further competition, is a better way to resolve the problem rather than to regulate those networks that already exist. The economic arguments often followed a line that regulating today may lead to results we cannot anticipate. Quoting panelist Michael Katz from an article he recently published, "Public policy should intervene where anti-competitive actions can be identified and the cure will not be worse than the disease. Policymakers must tread carefully, however, because it can be difficult, if not impossible, to determine in advance whether a particular practice promotes or harms competition."

Many speakers cited to a recent report issued through the Federal Trade Commission, a copy of which is found here. In the end, the executive summary of the FTC's report followed the 'caution' model: "In evaluating whether new proscriptions are necessary, we advise proceeding with caution before enacting broad, ex ante restrictions in an unsettled, dynamic environment."

The committee thanks participants on the panel -- Michael Katz, professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley, David Sohn from the Center for Democracy and Technology, Gail Levine from Verizon, and Markham Erickson representing a group of content providers through his firm Holch & Erickson.

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