A new industry effort that bypasses Washington politicians and regulators indicates a cooling of hostilities over Net neutrality rules is underway.
Longtime political rivals including AT&T, Google, Comcast, Verizon, and Microsoft, announced Tuesday they had joined together to form a technical advisory group to "develop consensus on broadband network management practices or other related technical issues that can affect users' Internet experience," including applications and devices.
The formal name of the effort is the Broadband Internet Technical Advisory Group (BITAG), which will be chaired by Dale Hatfield of the University of Colorado at Boulder, a former chief technologist of the Federal Communications Commission.
Tuesday's announcement was, in retrospect, almost inevitable. After a majority of the U.S. Congress told the Democrat-controlled FCC not to slap strict Net neutrality rules on broadband providers, there was little chance of new regulations. And in an election year dominated by discussions of jobs, the economy, and health care, regulating broadband providers is hardly a congressional priority.
Supporters of Net neutrality say that new Internet regulations or laws are necessary to prevent broadband providers from restricting content or prioritizing one type of traffic over another. Broadband providers and many conservative and free-market groups, on the other hand, say that some of the proposed regulations would choke off new innovations and could even require awarding e-mail spam and telemedicine the identical priorities.
If Congress does return to the topic in 2011, it's difficult to predict what might happen, and whether the Google-eBay-Amazon.com axis would prevail over broadband providers. Which is why both sides appear to have decided that having a series of informal discussions--far away from the halls of the FCC and Capitol Hill--might be more productive.
Adam Thierer, president of the free-market Progress and Freedom Foundation, called the BITAG a way to de-politicize "Internet engineering issues by offering an independent forum for parties to have technical disputes mediated and resolved--without government involvement or onerous rulemakings."
The plan is for BITAG to "function as a neutral, expert technical forum and promote a greater consensus around technical practices within the Internet community," Hatfield said. Among the factors that will be considered: whether a practice is commonplace, whether alternative technical approaches are available, and whether a technical practice is aimed at specific content, applications, or companies.
This is in part a reference to Comcast's controversial throttling of some BitTorrent transfers during periods of network congestion, which led to the FCC declaring the practice to be illegal. Comcast sued, and a federal appeals court in April unanimously sided with the broadband provider. (By then, Comcast and BitTorrent had long since reached a peace accord.)
For the last few years, liberal advocacy groups including Free Press and Public Knowledge had enjoyed a close alliance with Google and other Web companies on the topic. (Some money has changed hands: Public Knowledge acknowledges receiving funds from Google, but won't reveal how much, and says Google's rivals also give undisclosed sums, which could be larger or smaller.)
Coalitions remain influential only if they can limit defections. For these advocacy groups, the danger is that their corporate allies might conclude the BITAG's work is sufficient and withdraw support for new laws and regulations, making their enactment much less likely.
And in fact, Free Press responded on Tuesday by claiming "this or any other voluntary effort is not a substitute for the government setting basic rules of the road for the Internet" and "there must be a separate FCC rulemaking process." Public Knowledge, too, said BITAG is "not a substitute for FCC rules and enforcement procedures."
But theory doesn't always mesh with political practice. Rank-and-file Dems are clamoring for Net neutrality about as much as Bush-era Republicans were clamoring for limited government: it's a valuable talking point, but if Silicon Valley has reached a working detente with broadband providers, well, there may be no need to do anything hasty.
Disclosure: Declan McCullagh is married to a Google employee.