House panel votes for Net neutrality

In surprise result, handful of Republicans joins Democrats in voting for "nondiscriminatory" bill backed by Net companies. Photos: Senators on Net neutrality

WASHINGTON--A bill that seeks to prevent broadband providers from offering an exclusive high-speed lane for video and other services has taken a step closer to becoming law.

By a 20-13 vote Thursday that partially followed party lines, the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would require broadband providers to abide by strict Net neutrality principles, meaning that their networks must be operated in a "nondiscriminatory" manner.

All 14 Democrats on the committee (joined by six Republicans) supported the measure, while 13 Republicans opposed it.

Senate Net neutrality

That vote is a surprise victory for Internet companies such as, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo that had lobbied fiercely in the last few months for stricter laws to ensure that Verizon, AT&T and other broadband providers could not create a "fast lane" reserved for video or other high-priority content of their choice.

"The lack of competition in the broadband marketplace presents a clear incentive for providers to leverage dominant market power over the broadband bottleneck, to preselect, favor or prioritize Internet content," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican who heads the committee.

In an unusual twist, many members of the committee said they were voting for the legislation not because of strong concerns over Net neutrality--but instead because of a turf battle. They said they were worried that a competing proposal already approved by a different committee last month would diminish their own influence in the future.

That other bill, called the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement, or COPE, Act, says the Federal Communications Commission "shall have exclusive authority" to investigate violations of Net neutrality principles. It's backed by Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican who heads the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and does not include strict Net neutrality mandates.

Because the FCC is overseen by Barton's committee, that proposal would effectively cut off Judiciary Committee members from being able to hold hearings on Net neutrality antitrust violations, give speeches about corporate malfeasance and solicit campaign cash from affected companies--the lifeblood of modern Washington politics.

Net neutrality's crowded field

Bill numberLead sponsor(s)What It ProposesStatus
S.2360Wyden (D)No two-tier InternetStill in Senate committee
S.2917Snowe (R) and Dorgan (D)No two-tier InternetJust introduced
HR5417Sensenbrenner (R) and Conyers (D)Antitrust extended to Net neutralityAwaiting House floor vote
HR5273Markey (D)No two-tier InternetStill in House committee *
HR5252Barton (R) and Rush (D)FCC can police complaintsAwaiting House floor vote
S.2686Stevens (R) and Inouye (D)FCC will do a studySenate committee vote expected in June

* Republicans have defeated similar language twice as an amendment to a telecommunications bill

Source: CNET research

That resulted in an unusual situation in which politicians who weren't enthusiastic about the Judiciary bill nevertheless voted for it on Wednesday. "I think the bill is a blunt instrument, and yet I think it does send a message that it's important to attain jurisdiction for the Justice Department and for antitrust issues," said Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat.

The most pointed opposition to the Judiciary bill came from Texas Republican Lamar Smith, who said he would prefer "to leave these decisions to the courts to work out on a case-by-case basis under the antitrust law."

The existing bill is far too regulatory and could "put a straitjacket on this important sector of the economy," Smith warned.

Rep. Anthony Weiner, a New York Democrat, said he also disagreed with the "regulatory scheme" proposed by the bill's sponsors but wasn't about to let the rival committee's proposal win. "The way the Energy and Commerce bill is written is to deny this committee--and, frankly, citizens--a right to remedy," he said.

AT&T said after the vote that it was disappointed but hoped that the turf war between the two committees could be resolved. "We are optimistic that the majority in Congress will see this legislation as an attempt to solve a problem that does not exist, and will instead focus on bringing choice to consumers by passing video choice legislation," Tim McKone, AT&T executive vice president for federal relations, said in a statement.

Walter McCormick, president of the United States Telecom Association (USTelecom), pointed to the pre-vote discussion when saying "the committee members understand that this misguided and reckless legislation could hamper investment and innovation and limit consumer choice." USTelecom is a trade association representing Verizon Communications, BellSouth and AT&T, as well as smaller telecommunications companies.

Also adopted was an amendment that Sensenbrenner and his co-sponsor Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, had offered. It says that broadband providers are allowed to offer consumer protection services such as parental controls; that they can offer special promotional pricing or marketing initiatives; and that they may prioritize or offer enhanced quality of service to all data of a particular type as long as they don't impose a surcharge.

Network operators from the telephone and cable industries, now allied with some of the nation's largest hardware makers, have said repeatedly that they have no intention of blocking, degrading or impairing content. They say they're protecting their right to manage their networks as they see fit, which could mean charging extra to heavy bandwidth users, such as video providers, that expect to have their content shuttled at priority speeds.

It's not clear what will happen next in the House. Often the House leadership, in this case the Republicans, will try to meld similar proposals together into one package before a floor vote. Alternatively, the Republican leadership could permit both bills to go to the floor for votes.

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