WASHINGTON - Consumer advocates on Tuesday said federal regulators need to increase oversight of telephone and cable companies that offer Internet access to ensure they aren't discriminating against certain providers of video and other Web content.
Gigi B. Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a nonprofit group that focuses on communications law, said the Federal Trade Commission should also require more disclosure from telephone and cable companies about the Internet access speeds they promise to deliver to consumers.
Sohn spoke on the first of a two-day workshop convened by the FTC to discuss "network neutrality" issues. The phrase is shorthand for the concept that all online traffic should be treated equally by Internet service providers.
The issue pits content providers such as Google Inc. against large telecommunications companies, such as AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp. The latter group wants the option of charging customers more for transmitting certain content, including live video, faster or more reliably than other data.
Supporters of network neutrality argue that such differences in pricing could hinder Internet access for smaller, upstart companies by making it more expensive. Opponents, meanwhile, argue that barring telecom companies from charging more for providing additional services will reduce their incentive to invest more in their networks.
The FTC has formed an Internet access task force that is studying the issue and will issue a report for Congress and federal policymakers by this summer, said Maureen Ohlhausen, director of policy planning at the commission.
When it comes to tracking Internet access speeds more closely, consumer advocates say this is important strictly from a standpoint of truth in advertising.
In the area of net neutrality, Sohn said requiring greater disclosure by Internet service providers could help determine whether those companies are providing equal treatment to all Web traffic or whether they might be discriminating against other companies that provide competing video or voice services.
But Robert Pepper, an executive at networking equipment company Cisco Systems Inc., said such instances of unfair treatment rarely occur and can be addressed by the FTC under its existing authority.
"New, detailed...regulation would be counterproductive and instead the FTC should play a leadership role in protecting consumers and competition by exercising its authority ... on a case-by-case basis," he said.
Legislation to bar telecommunications carriers from discriminating among Internet content was debated last year in Congress but did not pass. Two senators, North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan and Maine Republican Olympia Snowe, reintroduced the legislation last month.
FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras first raised the subject of the commission's role in the net neutrality debate in a speech in August.
She said the agency would take steps against Internet providers that engaged in "anticompetitive conduct." However, she said, "the question ... is whether we should give the market a chance to work before stepping in to regulate this still nascent, dynamic industry," according to copy of her speech.