Conventional wisdom has it that net neutrality is dead. Embalmed. Buried. Covered with six feet of dirt and a mahogany lid. But just in time for All Hallows Eve, the concept has risen from the dead like a zombie andstarted shambling round the halls of Congress as two senators asked the Senate Commerce Committee to look into the issue of network discrimination this week.
Senators Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) have tag-teamed in the past on the net neutrality issue, and they're still a formidable bipartisan duo. On Friday, the two senators asked the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee to see if a lack of network neutrality rules were causing problems for Americans in the wake of some widely-publicized PR gaffes by some of the country's largest telecommunications firms.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Critics argued only a few weeks back that the issue had lost traction, both in Congress and among the public, because there just weren't any actual problems to get worked into a lather about. Who needed rules when the telcos and cable operators were all behaving themselves so well?
And then came the bad behavior, the litany of minor cases, dropping like early Christmas gifts into the laps of net neutrality advocates across the country. AT&T censored political lyrics in a Pearl Jam webcast (then apologized). Verizon initially blocked a mass text message from NARAL Pro-Choice America (then apologized). Comcast was found to be delaying BitTorrent and Lotus Notes traffic (and remains unapologetic). AT&T's new terms of service appeared to prohibit criticism of the company (the company apologized and changed the terms).
The companies have all been quick to see just how bad such censorship looks from a PR perspective; even Comcast has gone on a PR offensive to convince journalists and customers that it is not monitoring, filtering, or throttling traffic (it's just… delaying it a bit). But the damage appears to have been done. No matter how many apologies or explanations are offered, net neutrality backers now have solid examples of the ways in which ISPs can affect the lives of ordinary netizens.
Whether the renewed Congressional interest in the matter will lead anywhere is one of the world's great imponderables, right up there with "How far past its expiration date can I drink from this carton of milk?" Several federal agencies that might be charged with implementing network neutrality laws have already made their stances clear, though. The FTC has weighed in with its opinion on network neutrality ("No"), and the Department of Justice wrote a less-than-convincing position paper of its own that came to the same conclusion, but in stronger terms ("Hell, no!"). The FCC is still looking into the issue.
Despite this federal skepticism, Dorgan and Snowe's letter will come as a relief to network neutrality backers, who could only be more pleased if Ed Whitacre came out of retirement and started shooting off his mouth again.