Thursday, June 15, 2006

Feingold on Net Neutrality

Senate Judiciary Committee

WASHINGTON - June 14 - Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing today on the important issue of ensuring competition in our communications laws.

I hope that the Judiciary Committee will make this hearing one of a series addressing consumer and competition concerns in the telecommunications field. There are a number of significant issues we should look at, such as media consolidation, preemption of state rights, and anticompetitive practices in the radio and concert industries. In fact, as I think about the issue of Internet competition, it makes a lot of sense to me to consider it through the lens of the problems with the radio and concert industries that I have been concerned about for some time.

Ten years on, the radio and concert industries have not recovered from the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which I opposed. The massive consolidation that resulted from that law took a toll on the local flavor of radio, and it also allowed the problem of payments for airplay, or “payola,” to reemerge. Within the radio industry, payola effectively created a two-tiered system of the labels and artists with the resources to purchase airtime under the table and those who could not or would not. Consumers looking for diversity and localism were the big losers.

I see a parallel situation potentially developing if we allow Internet access providers to create another pay-for-play system and become de facto gatekeepers to the Internet. Without a non-discrimination requirement, certain websites on the Internet could gain an unfair advantage. For example, the major record labels and music stores might be able to pay what the broadband providers demand to prioritize their music distribution, while smaller rivals might not. The independent labels and musicians who have found a niche on the Internet after consolidation and payola drove them from radio could again face an unfair pay-for-play system. Moreover, without protections, Internet users could have fewer choices as only those content providers who could afford to pay the corporate toll-keepers would be able to offer a competitive level of service. We need to make sure that the Internet retains its crucial role as an open forum for the free exchange and dissemination of information.

While antitrust protections such as net neutrality’s non-discrimination concept might not be needed if we had truly competitive markets, the current landscape, which amounts to an emerging duopoly, does not meet this threshold. Perhaps this will change if WiFi, municipal broadband or other technologies become widely available and competitively priced, but for the time being the principle of non-discrimination is a very important one. I also understand that there are legitimate reasons for broadband providers to prioritize one type of data over another to manage their network efficiently. I support the core net neutrality proposals I have seen that allow for this legitimate management of the network, while preserving the basic principle of equal access to the Internet.

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