Net neutrality push expected to resume in Congress

Agreement reached in AT&T-BellSouth merger could set the stage for renewed action on Capitol Hill.

The nation's soon-to-be largest telephone company may have caved to certain Net neutrality commitments for the sake of a merger blessing, but a renewed push for more sweeping rules could return to Capitol Hill as soon as this month.

Breaking months of partisan deadlock among the four voting members of the Federal Communications Commission over AT&T's roughly $86 billion union with BellSouth, the telecommunications giant made a last-minute pledge last week to abide by a series of antidiscrimination principles supported by Internet content companies like Google and eBay, and consumer advocacy groups.

"The agreement once and for all puts to rest the bogus argument that no one can define Net neutrality."
--Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press

Although some FCC commissioners have asserted that the agreement is not a public policy mandate, it could serve as a blueprint for members of Congress preparing to reintroduce bills intended to bar network operators like AT&T from charging extra fees to content providers for added perks.

"The agreement once and for all puts to rest the bogus argument that no one can define Net neutrality," said Ben Scott, policy director for the advocacy group Free Press, which coordinates a pro-Net neutrality coalition called Save the Internet.

Net neutrality is the idea that network operators such as AT&T and Verizon should be prohibited from prioritizing any content or services that travel across their pipes. Ever since telecommunications executives began warning more than a year ago that they should have the right to charge extra for premium placement on their networks, Internet companies and consumer groups have been clamoring for federal regulations barring such a practice. They argue that it threatens users' freedoms. Opponents of regulations say there's no evidence of a discrimination problem and that new rules would stifle innovation.

Specifically, AT&T said that for 30 months after the merger's closure, it would not provide or sell "any service that privileges, degrades or prioritizes any packet" transmitted over its pipes based on its "source, ownership or destination."

That description amounts to a "framework for rules that can be applied industry-wide to allow American consumers and small businesses to benefit from deployment of discrimination-free advanced networks," U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in an e-mailed statement on Tuesday.

Wyden, who authored the first and perhaps most aggressive Net neutrality bill to emerge last year, hopes to reintroduce his bill in similar form this January, according to an aide.

Also hoping for a late January or early February proposal are Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

The duo teamed up in May to introduce the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, which barred network operators from making special deals with content providers and required them to offer all Internet material on an "equivalent" basis. The latest bill will likely undergo only "technical" changes, but the senators' staffs plan to discuss language of the AT&T-BellSouth concessions while finalizing their own, a Republican aide said.

On the House of Representatives side, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., plans to reintroduce an identical version of his , though a representative said a timetable had not been set yet. Markey, who is widely expected to be named the new chairman of a key Internet and telecommunications panel as early as this week, also plans to hold hearings on the topic throughout the spring and early summer.

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