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EDITORIAL: Time to play catch-up on Internet laws: The gap between technology and America's laws hit home last week in a court decision on network neutrality.
[April 11, 2010]

EDITORIAL: Time to play catch-up on Internet laws: The gap between technology and America's laws hit home last week in a court decision on network neutrality.

Apr 11, 2010 (The Roanoke Times - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- America's laws often lag behind innovation and technology. Last week, the gap caught up with the Internet when an appeals court ruled the Federal Communications Commission lacks authority to regulate Internet providers.

The case involved whether the FCC could reprimand Comcast for violating open-access guidelines. Those guidelines, often called "network neutrality," ask Internet providers not to discriminate against bytes.

In other words, your Internet provider should not throttle speeds or prevent access to Netflix or Hulu because the provider is getting money from YouTube for premium lines to subscribers. Companies could cap how much data customers could use in a month, but not discriminate against legal communication based simply on what program or Web site the data comes from.

The court decided Congress had not empowered the FCC to impose network neutrality.

The decision could have broader effects, too. It might prevent the FCC from protecting consumers and from implementing policies to develop universal broadband access comparable to what is available overseas.

The Internet has been a tremendous equalizer. It gives everyone access to the same information even if it is just at a library computer. If providers get their way, though, dollars will determine who can access what.

Communications laws were written to deal with televisions and telephones, not the Internet. It is time for an update, and that means turning to Congress.

The challenge is dealing with lawmakers who often do not appear to understand new technology well. That is hardly surprising given that the average congressman grew up before the Internet, even before cable television was widespread. Chairmen of technology committees sometimes display gross misunderstandings of technology and its modern use. Former Sen. Ted Stevens was chairman of the Commerce Committee, which is charged with overseeing communications technology, when he infamously likened the Internet to "a series of tubes." The FCC could instead unilaterally act to change the rules, but that would likely lead only to new lawsuits and congressional opposition.

The FCC also could appeal the decision, but it seems unlikely to prevail at a Supreme Court dominated by justices who love nothing more than siding with corporations.

The best hope, then, is for Congress to play catch-up and write new laws that explicitly empower the FCC to oversee the Internet, mandate network neutrality and adopt regulations that will lead to near-universal broadband access.

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