Net neutrality field in Congress gets crowded

Politicians rush to introduce their own versions of broadband regulation; new Democrat-led proposal joins existing ones.

U.S. senators have unveiled their latest effort at legislating Net neutrality principles, marking the second such proposal this week and the sixth this year.

Called the "Internet Freedom Preservation Act," the bill was introduced on Friday by Maine Republican Olympia Snowe and North Dakota Democrat Sen. Byron Dorgan and enjoys support from six other Democrats. The nine-page measure (click for PDF) contains a detailed list of obligations for all broadband service providers.

Specifically, they would generally not be allowed to "block, interfere with, discriminate against, impair or degrade" access to content or to prevent users from attaching devices of their choosing to the network. Network operators would also be barred from making special deals with content providers to ensure speedier delivery or improved quality of service and would be required to offer all Internet material on an "equivalent" basis.

The bill won immediate praise from the chorus of Net neutrality advocates, which includes consumer groups and a large number of Internet companies. A coalition including Amazon.com, eBay, Google, InterActiveCorp, Microsoft and Yahoo said the measure "will allow innovators, entrepreneurs and investors who rely on the certainty of that open marketplace to continue to fuel the engine of our nation's economy and our global leadership in Internet technology and services."

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 neutralityJust introduced
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 News.com research

The U.S. Telecom Association, which represents large and small telephone companies, decried the proposal as "harmful, anti-consumer regulations." The lobbying group warned in a statement: "If any of these bills were ever enacted into law, they would drive up the cost of broadband as well as deny Americans the new, competitive video services they have come to expect."

The bill will likely be the subject of debate at a hearing on May 25 about the Net neutrality provisions--or, as critics charge, lack thereof--in a sweeping telecommunications bill under consideration by the Senate Commerce Committee. The current language would direct the Federal Communications Commission to keep an eye on incidents that could be considered violations of Net neutrality and report to Congress on its findings.

Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye, who is a co-sponsor of the bill and serves as co-chairman of the committee, has charged that that's not enough. Fellow committee member Barbara Boxer of California also was among the politicians who backed the proposal introduced Friday.

Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Barack Obama of Illinois and Ron Wyden of Oregon--none of whom are members of the Senate Commerce Committee--also signed on as co-sponsors. Wyden, who introduced a similar Net neutrality bill of his own in March, signed onto the Snowe-Dorgan proposal because "he feels this is an important step for Net neutrality to move forward and be enacted into law," said Andrew Blotsky, press secretary for the senator.

The latest bill comes on the heels of a proposal from the House Judiciary Committee that also enjoys support from both parties, though it is again more heavily weighted toward the Democratic side. Chairman James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, signed up as a primary sponsor of a new bill designed to make Net neutrality enforceable under antitrust law.

Net neutrality centers on the philosophy that network operators should not be permitted to prioritize--or charge premium prices for--Internet content and services that travel across their pipes. Those in support of that effort include some of the Net's biggest players, such as Microsoft and Google, along with a broad coalition of consumer-oriented groups.

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

"Legislation that prohibits us from providing network management services for the benefit of consumers is a solution in search of a problem," said Bill McCloskey, a spokesman for BellSouth, which opposes the bill and other regulatory versions like it.

The new bill, like most of its similar counterparts, does outline carve-outs from the rules for network management activities related to security and other consumer protection services.

Also buried in the proposal is a requirement that providers offer their customers the option of standalone, or "naked" broadband services without an obligation to subscribe to cable television, telephone or Internet phone.

It would be up to the Federal Communications Commission to enforce complaints and to furnish Congress with a report on the state of the broadband market and competition.

Until late this week, the loudest push for laws barring network operators from engaging in such practices had come almost exclusively from Democrats. Most Republicans--and a handful of Democrats as well--have voted down more regulatory language but agreed to various degrees of oversight from the Federal Communications Commission. They've charged that additional steps are unnecessary at this point and could discourage network operators from investing additional money to build out their systems.

The latest bills mark a slight shift in that partisan split, but it may not be enough to prevail in a Republican-controlled Congress.

"There is no reason this should be a partisan issue," said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, which has been advocating for Net neutrality laws and applauded the new bill. "It is a shame that more senators from the Republican Party did not feel they were able to support this legislation."

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