Internet users should be free to surf where they want and download what they please. But shouldn't the owners of the networks that make the Internet possible also have rights?
That, in a nutshell, is the topic of debate at a special public meeting of the Federal Communications Commission at Harvard Law School on Monday.
Recent events involving Comcast Corp. and Verizon Wireless have raised questions about network owners interfering with customer traffic flow. The meeting also is expected to attract a rally on minority media ownership.
The session is the agency's most serious public discussion to date of the principle of "network neutrality." That is the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally.
Among the speakers are the federal policy chiefs for Comcast and Verizon Communications Inc. as well as representatives from public interest groups and academia who have criticized the companies' practices.
Comcast is the subject of an FCC investigation regarding charges it has hampered traffic between users without notice. This practice was raised by an Associated Press story in October.
"I'm concerned about Comcast limiting the ability of people to go anywhere they want to on the free Internet," the commission chairman, Kevin Martin, told the AP on Friday. "And that's what the hearing is about."
The company is accused of violating the FCC's policy against Internet discrimination. Comcast has denied the allegations.
"To be clear, Comcast does not, has not, and will not block any Web sites or online applications, including peer-to-peer services, and no one has demonstrated otherwise," company spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice said.
The public meeting also will address Verizon Wireless' denial in late September of a request by an abortion rights group to use its mobile network for a text messaging program. The company has since said it was a mistake.
Congress is considering legislation by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., that would require the FCC to conduct eight "broadband summits" around the country on the network neutrality issue.
Markey, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet said Friday his bill is an effort to "ensure that we do have a national broadband policy" and to make sure "consumer rights are protected" when it comes to broadband, or high-speed, services.
On the same day and location of the hearing, the Boston and Cambridge, Mass., branches of the NAACP plan to host a "take back our media" rally, according to a flier that was circulated on the Internet.
The flier includes quotations from several civil rights groups criticizing Martin's policies on media ownership. The Rev. Jesse Jackson was quoted as claiming Martin supports a "massive new and unjustified welfare for the rich program."
But in a statement Friday, Jackson denied making such a comment and said it does not reflect his position or that of his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. "We have always enjoyed a constructive relationship with the FCC and look forward to continuing it," the statement said.
Martin defended his efforts as FCC chairman, saying the agency has been "active and proactive in taking steps to increase minority ownership."
Most of the quotations took issue at Martin's efforts to push cable operators to offer channels on an a la carte basis. His proposal has met with opposition from the industry, which says it would hurt minority programming.
The flier initially did not include the rally sponsors. A later version, supplied to the AP by a public relations firm, included the NAACP's Boston and Cambridge branches as organizers.
According to Karen Payne, president of the Boston branch of the civil rights group, the rally was sparked by the sale of Boston radio station WILD-FM in 2006. The station's urban format was popular in the black community.
Payne said the NAACP had not authorized the release of the flier, and that as of Friday night, it was still in the draft stages.