(Left to right) William M. Treanor, J.D., dean of Fordham Law School; former Attorney General William Barr, executive vice president for Verizon; and Joel R. Reidenberg, J.D., Ph.D., professor of law and founding director of the Fordham Center on Law and Information Policy.
Photo by Chris Taggart

Net neutrality legislation to regulate broadband Internet services will stifle investment and innovation that over the past decade has provided Americans unprecedented speed and access to the Internet, said former U.S. Attorney General William Barr, executive vice president and general counsel for Verizon, in a speech at Fordham Law School on Jan. 16.

Delivering the Fordham Center on Law and Information Policy’s inaugural Law and Information Society Lecture, Barr said that Verizon is spending $18 billion to install fiber optic lines that will carry Internet traffic at speeds unimaginable only a few years ago. He warned that federal regulations barring telephone and cable companies from establishing a tiered system, in which companies could pay a fee to providers to travel on their network’s fastest connections or to use enhanced services, would bring such investments to a screeching halt.

“We didn’t build these networks, we cannot put this money at risk, Wall Street would not allow us to spend this money, for regulated returns and regulatory control,” said Barr, who served as attorney general from 1991 to 1993. “This is a competitive market. This is not what regulators are used to working with: regulated markets where competition is limited. We need to allow the marketplace to work.”

The idea of tolls and a tiered system has prompted concerns among Internet titans like Google and Amazon that access providers could become the Web’s de factogatekeepers, blocking or limiting access to certain content. Barr’s speech comes on the heels of the reintroduction of a bill in the U.S. Senate, the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2007, that would limit the ability of telecommunications companies to impose fees. An identical bill died in committee last year on an 11-11 vote.

The movement to stop telecommunications companies from establishing the fee system has coalesced under the banner of net neutrality. Net neutrality refers to the fact that since the Web’s inception all traffic has been treated equally, or neutrally, as it travels on the Internet’s public highway system, the so-called backbone.

Barr told the audience that for a long time most people could only access the Internet through telephone lines with speeds capped at 56 kilobytes per second. However, cable and telephone companies have invested vast sums and pushed transmission speeds to a current average of 1.5 megabytes per second. This, Barr said, is the Internet’s limiting feature, not the plans by telecommunications companies to provide high speeds and enhanced services. Verizon’s fiber optic line, he said, will reach speeds of up to 100 megabytes per second when it’s fully deployed in 2010.

In a 100-megabit environment, Barr said there will be more than enough capacity to provide home customers access to anywhere they want to go on the Internet. However, it will also be possible for organizations, like hospitals, to contract with access providers to build powerful networks with immense capacity that until now have been available only to large corporations, he said.

Federal regulation would close off, he said, any opportunity for hospitals and small- to medium-sized businesses to build those powerful networks, even if they wanted to spend the money.

Barr’s speech was the first event in the Law & Information Society Lecture series sponsored by the Fordham Center on Law and Information Policy. The center was founded at the Law School to make significant contributions to the development of law and policy for the information economy. Joel R. Reidenberg, J.D., Ph.D., professor of law and the center’s founding director, said that the annual lecture will explore issues related to the impact of law and technology on society.

By Victor M. Inzunza