With the deadline for filing comments on a federal effort to enact network neutrality rules fast approaching, businesses and advocacy groups are making their pitches in an effort to shape what could be a landmark overhaul of the nation's Internet policy.
The Federal Communications Commission is accepting comments on its Net neutrality rulemaking through Thursday, and advocates of the policy took the occasion to release a pair of academic analyses today making a case linking the open Internet with economic growth.
The argument essentially follows that if ISPs are left unchecked, they will seek to strike side agreements with content and application providers, promising swift transmission of their data in exchange for a fee. The effect, the researchers argued, would be to put a lid on the startup culture that has nourished innovative companies like Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and eBay (NASDAQ: EBAY).
"ISPs have given indications that they would like to extract revenue from content providers," said Michael Livermore, executive director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law.
By the worst-case scenario, those deals would open an additional source of revenue for network operators, while choking off the growth of other sectors of the economy where the Web can be used as a tool to build businesses.
"There is an important role for the government here," Livermore said today on a conference call with reporters." A laissez-faire policy would not be an optimal policy from an investment perspective."
Of course, the FCC will hear a very different argument from ISPs and their industry groups and lobbyists as comments pour in this week.
Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen penned a recent blog post about the issue of network neutrality, expressing support for the FCC's work in examining the Internet marketplace as it proceeds with its rulemaking, but concluded, "We continue to question whether the record will show a need for new rules."
Kyle McSlarrow, the head of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, has argued that any effort by the FCC to prohibit ISPs from brokering side deals with content providers could be unconstitutional.
In its proposed rulemaking, the FCC held out the option for ISPs to offer some content with guaranteed priority delivery in a somewhat vague exception designated as "managed services."
At the same time as it moves toward Net neutrality rules, the FCC is embroiled in a court case challenging its authority in a previous decision on the issue. Comcast is arguing that the commission exceeded its authority when it cited the cable giant in 2008 for violating its Internet policy statement.
A panel of federal judges heard oral arguments in that case last week, and appeared more receptive to Comcast's argument than the case laid out by the FCC. If the court rules that the commission lacks the authority to regulate broadband providers, it could effectively preempt the current rulemaking proceeding.
The court is expected to issue its ruling later this spring.
After the first round of comments, the FCC will accept reply comments on the rulemaking through March 5 before it puts the rules to a vote later this year.
Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of the internet.com network.