Democratic senator wants Net neutrality regulations

In repeat partisan split in House, a Democratic senator takes issue with Republican broadband proposal.

WASHINGTON--In a move that could presage a Net neutrality debate in the U.S. Senate, an aide to a key Democrat endorsed on Tuesday new laws regulating broadband providers.

"I'm not sure that we see anything wrong with setting up some rules of the road that will make sure everyone plays fair," said James Assey, Jr., Democratic counsel to the Senate Commerce Committee. Assey was speaking on a panel of legislative aides at a broadband policy summit here.

In the House of Representatives on April 26, Republicans defeated a Democratic-led bid to enshrine strict Net neutrality regulations into law. The Republican chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee last week released a 135-page draft bill that takes an even more hands-off approach to broadband providers.

"I don't view this as new regulation of the Internet," said Assey, who added that Sen. Daniel Inouye, the Hawaii Democrat, is concerned about laissez-faire rules. "In fact, I view it as reaffirming what has been a very old principle...that network operators with an ability and incentive to discriminate be prevented from doing so."

Net neutrality, also called network neutrality, is the idea that network operators should not be allowed to prioritize content and services--particularly video--that come across their pipes.

The Senate draft bill, which is part of a broader measure to rewrite telecommunications laws, includes no additional regulations for Net neutrality but instead requires the Federal Communications Commission to report to Congress periodically on any problems that may develop.

Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, "went back and forth on the whole Net neutrality issue," said Lisa Sutherland, staff director of Stevens' committee. Stevens was troubled by the prospect of discrimination by network operators but ultimately decided to take the current "hands-off approach" after hearing from Wall Street interests testifying at a committee hearing that governmental intervention would "chill investment," she said.

The Senate's current language isn't set in stone, and Stevens will continue to work with Inouye and other committee members to develop a consensus, Sutherland added.

Network operators say they deserve the right to charge premium fees to bandwidth hogs in order to offset their vast investments in infrastructure and to ensure the quality and security of their products. Internet companies and consumer groups counter that they already pay vast amounts to broadband providers to deliver content and that the new business model network operators are proposing would force them to pay twice.

Proponents of Net neutrality, which critics charge has no clear definition, would like to see detailed regulations barring what they decry as threats to the Internet's open architecture. So far, they have won over but made less headway on the other side of the aisle.

Lobbyists up the pressure
Meanwhile, there's been no shortage of input from lobbyists and constituents hoping to sway lawmakers to their side, the congressional panelists said.

Sutherland described what she called an "unprecedented" number of meetings, forums and lunches with Microsoft, Google, and "everybody I can think of that has an opinion on this."

As many as 600,000 letters from constituents related to the Net neutrality issue have streamed into the offices of congressional members since the House Energy and Commerce Committee's recent approval of its own telecommunications bill, said Johanna Shelton, the committee's Democratic counsel.

Rep. John Dingell, the committee's senior Democrat, is still evaluating the best legislative approach but is "deeply concerned" about the potential for extra fees being imposed on Internet content and application providers and the subsequent effect on consumers, Shelton said.

"It would be unthinkable for the government to insert fees into the way the Internet is now, but yet there are a number of people who would be fine with private entities doing so and being able to selectively pick and choose and treat others differently for any reason they see fit," she said.

Howard Waltzman, the committee's chief counsel, viewed the House's approach in a different light. He said the committee struck an appropriate balance with its bill by including language prohibiting the FCC from making new rules on Net neutrality but granting it the power to vet complaints of discrimination and impose penalties.

"No one's going to put money into an area where government is going to be micromanaging not only your network deployment but your relationship with other entities, whether they be application service providers or content providers," he said.

Rep. Charles "Chip" Pickering, a Mississippi Republican who co-sponsored the House's broadband bill, defended his committee's proposal in a luncheon speech to summit participants. He noted that politicians are "still wrestling" with the best way to address Net neutrality but conceded that election-year politics might trump major changes to the existing bill.

With the Republican Party in "survival mode" leading up to the fall elections, committee leaders have attempted to "pare something down that we can actually move so we can have accomplishments, so we can continue in the majority," Pickering said.

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