Whether the Internet is truly a democratic forum was called into question this week in a dispute about Internet traffic management between AT&T and the consumer advocacy group Free Press.
The feud boiled down to what it means to have "paid prioritization," a phenomenon viewed as anathema by advocates of Internet openness, and to what extent preferential treatment of content already takes place. The issue is at the very heart of a broader debate about what regulatory steps are necessary, if any, to ensure the Internet remains an engine of economic growth and a platform of equal value to people across the socioeconomic spectrum.
AT&T, in a letter filed with the Federal Communications Commission on Monday, argued that paid prioritization of Internet traffic, contrary to claims made by Free Press, is already a common practice of Web management and consistent with protocols set by the Internet Engineering Task Force. Largely unknown to people outside the technology field, IETF is a professional organization composed of engineers that develop standards for the Internet; for over two decades, it has played an integral role in the management of the Internet.
The current chair of the IETF, Russ Housley, disagrees with AT&T's assessment.
"AT&T's characterization is misleading," Housley said. "IETF prioritization technology is geared toward letting network users indicate how they want network providers to handle their traffic, and there is no implication in the IETF about payment based on any prioritization."
Dedicated lines of service, according to AT&T, are examples of current paid prioritization schemes, a concept Free Press flatly disagrees with.
AT&T constructed "bogus interpretations of 'paid prioritization' that reflect no arguments or statements made by the FCC or any proponents of net neutrality," said S. Derek Turner, research director of Free Press. The group calls paid prioritization an anti-consumer practice where third-party content owners can pay an Internet service provider to "cut to the front of the line" in Web traffic. It's a practice that would lead to a pay-to-play scenario where only big business could afford the premium channels needed to compete, net neutrality advocates say, thereby squeezing the little guys out of the market.
But AT&T dismisses those assertions, saying Free Press' acceptance of dedicated lines of service as a management practice is hypocritical given its stance against paid prioritization.
"We understand why Free Press is upset with our letter," said Michael Balmoris, spokesman for AT&T. "We outed them by shedding light on their inconsistencies. After all, for years Free Press has used empty rhetoric and faux-technical mumbo jumbo to demonize any paid prioritization."
In the conclusion of its letter, AT&T implored the FCC not to limit or ban paid prioritization, positing that it would be "contrary to the goals of innovation, investment, and growth and contrary to the interests of small, medium-sized, and minority-owned businesses."
Most professionals in the telecommunications and Internet field acknowledge that some content already does get right of way on the Web. The debate hinges on to what extent it is appropriate and whether paying for priority empowers networks at the expense of user control.
"Wireless use is prioritized," said Steve Largent, president and CEO of CTIA-The Wireless Association. "Your voice calls take precedence over your data usage, your interactive data usage is prioritized over your standard data usage, and your 911 calls supersede all of it."
For wireless -- which operates on spectrum, a resource with dramatically less capacity than physical cables -- prioritization is a big issue.
"One strand of fiber has more capacity that the entire electromagnetic spectrum," Largent said, explaining the need for prioritization.
With services that require certain speeds to operate smoothly, such as Internet telephony, calls are given precedence over TV, Housley said. Otherwise, the call might be subject to jittery reception. In these instances, Housley notes, the preferred treatment is consumer-driven by the purchase of multiple products that share an access line.
As evidenced by the spat between AT&T and Free Press, whether network providers should be able to charge online companies extra fees for faster delivery of their traffic to consumers is extremely controversial.
The matter is under consideration by the FCC, which issued a formal request for public comment Wednesday on whether open Internet rules should apply to mobile broadband and specialized services.
The notice was released less than a month after Google and Verizon released their proposed policy framework aimed at finding middle ground on the network neutrality debate. Their proposal called for barring wireline broadband providers from discriminating against or prioritizing lawful Internet content, applications or services. However, the framework called for exempting fast-growing wireless Internet services from all the principles except for transparency and allowing for specialized services to be fast-tracked over the Internet.
Public interest groups blast the FCC for stalling on a decision about how to regulate broadband and protect consumers. Industry, including AT&T, Verizon and CTIA, praised the commission for its fact-finding endeavor.