Should feds regulate service providers?

WASHINGTON — Should the feds regulate the Internet to prevent broadband service providers from discriminating against content or users?

That’s the question at the center of the heated debate over the future of the Web, and the Federal Communications Commission hopes to get some answers on Feb. 26, when it will hold an open hearing at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass.

Commissioners “will hear from expert panelists regarding broadband network management practices,” according to an FCC announcement released Tuesday. “The hearing is open to the public, and seating will be available on a first-come, first-served basis.”

For at least the last year, the debate over so-called Net neutrality has often been intense. In general, the principle of Net neutrality holds that broadband service providers be required by law to treat all content and users equally. Providers have been insisting that they already do, and thus any mandate for Net neutrality is “a solution in search of a problem.”

Proponents of Net neutrality disagree, claiming there have already been instances of content blocked because of political or competitive reasons, most recently involving Comcast.

“Today’s announcement by the FCC of an en banc hearing on broadband network management is a direct reaction to Comcast’s improper blocking of competing Internet applications and services,” said Mark Erickson, executive director of the Open Internet Coalition.

An Associated Press investigation last fall revealed that Comcast was utilizing certain “traffic-shaping” techniques impeding the use of the file-sharing, peer-to-peer protocol BitTorrent, which is often used for piracy.

Comcast has denied the allegations, which the FCC’s enforcement bureau is currently investigating.

The upcoming hearing “provides the FCC an opportunity to assure consumers and innovators that the Internet will not be squeezed down into a version of cable television, where choices are limited, and the platform is closed, and is a hopeful step toward keeping the Internet open for choice and innovation,” Erickson continued. “We look forward to participating in these important proceedings.”

The hearing is set to start at 10 a.m.

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