House begins debate on Net neutrality rules

The debate kicks off in the House of Representatives, with Democrats saying it's "shameful" not to impose Net neutrality regulations.

Last-minute political maneuvering over Net neutrality regulations erupted Thursday before a scheduled vote in the full U.S. House of Representatives.

In a floor debate that fell almost entirely along party lines, Democrats lambasted a telecommunications bill for not including stiff Net neutrality regulations and said they would oppose it unless amendments they favored were adopted.

"This bill should not see daylight," Rep. Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat, said during a floor debate. "We can do better than this."

Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, warned that the bill without Net neutrality regulations "will do nothing for ordinary citizens--it is a shameful bill."

A vote on the Net neutrality amendments is expected this week, probably Friday.

At issue is a lengthy measure called the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement (COPE) Act, which a House committee approved in April. Its Republican backers, along with Verizon and AT&T, say it has sufficient Net neutrality protections for consumers and more extensive rules would discourage investment in wiring American homes with higher-speed connections.

The concept of network neutrality, which generally means that all Internet sites must be treated equally, has drawn a list of high-profile backers, from actress Alyssa Milano to Vint Cerf, one of the technical pioneers of the Internet. It's also led to a political rift between big Internet companies such as Google and Yahoo that back it--and telecom companies that oppose what they view as onerous new federal regulations.

As a final house vote nears, lobbyists and CEOs from both sides have been stepping up the pressure. eBay CEO Meg Whitman e-mailed more than a million members urging them to support the concept, and Google CEO Eric Schmidt on Wednesday called on his company's users to follow suit.

Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican, said during Thursday's debate that the current version of the COPE Act is sufficiently consumer friendly. "The proponents will say there's nothing there," Stearns said. But, he added, the Federal Communications Commission would receive "explicit power to go after companies that violate Net neutrality principles."

Much of the Democrats' criticism centered on the procedures that the House Republican leadership had chosen to set rules for votes on the telecommunications bill. The leadership has done the following:

• Permitted Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, to offer his Net neutrality amendment (click here for PDF) that had been rejected by the Energy and Commerce Committee. It would effectively ban broadband providers from offering a "fast lane" for favored content.

• Rejected a proposal from the House Judiciary Committee to enforce Net neutrality by extending antitrust law. This is part of a turf battle between two House committees.

• Allowed an amendment (click here for PDF) from Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, that would preserve the House Judiciary Committee's influence--without adding extensive Net neutrality mandates.

• Rejected an amendment proposed by Rep. Charles Gonzalez, a Texas Democrat, that would have extended Net neutrality principles to major commercial Web sites such as Google, Yahoo and eBay--on the theory that those sites enjoy near-monopolies of their own.

• Permitted an amendment (click here for PDF) proposed by Rep. Gil Gutknecht, a Minnesota Republican, that would explicitly extend "universal service" taxes to companies providing voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services.

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