Politico rejects Net neutrality concerns

Influential House member says there's no evidence of threats feared by Net companies, predicts issue will soon be "moot."

The recent outcry over prospects for an Internet that favors some content over others is overblown, an influential congressman said Wednesday.

Texas Republican Joe Barton, chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce Committee, defended his decision to include limited obligations related to Net neutrality for broadband providers in the latest version of a much-anticipated bill released Monday.

The House committee plans to hold a hearing on the bill on Thursday, beginning at 7 a.m. PT and potentially stretching well into the day. A 14-member witness list includes representatives from cable and telecommunications trade associations, consumer advocacy groups, Vonage and Amazon.com.

"Before we get too far down the road, I want to let the market kind of sort itself out, and I'm not convinced that we really have a problem with Net neutrality," Barton said in a conference call with reporters. "I know the average congressman doesn't know what the term means, and...experts disagree on what the term means."

Net neutrality, also known as network neutrality, is the idea that companies that own the broadband pipes should not be able to configure their networks in a way that plays favorites--allowing them, for example, to transmit their own services at faster speeds, or to charge Net content and application companies a fee for similar fast delivery.

Telecommunications and cable executives say they deserve the right to create a tiered Internet system that would require big bandwidth hogs like Google or Yahoo to pay more for their access in order to recoup the substantial costs they face in launching new services, particularly video.

But many content providers that use the broadband providers' pipes argue that plans for such a "fast lane" pose a threat to the Internet's open architecture and could elevate prices for consumers. Consumer groups and Internet companies such as Microsoft, Google and Yahoo have charged that the House's new bill doesn't go far enough to protect surfers from such ills.

Barton dismissed their concerns. "If I'm a Yahoo or an Amazon.com and I'm investing hundreds of millions of dollars into my service, I'm willing to invest 10 cents a video to get it to my customers," he said.

The committee's proposal "strikes the right posture" in the debate because it "explicitly" gives the Federal Communications Commission the authority to enforce its own set of broadband principles outlined last August, Barton said. He suggested that enforcing suspected Net neutrality violations on a case-by-case basis is the best way to go until a clearer picture emerges about the reality of the problem.

"The market is going to make it a moot issue," he said. "I don't think we'll be gnashing our teeth over Net neutrality two to three years from now."

The committee hopes to move toward a vote and amendments on the measure next week and send it to a full vote on the House floor after returning from the Easter recess at the end of April.

The bill would also have to be reconciled with any version the Senate devises. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, who is leading that side's efforts on telecommunications reform, has said publicly that he supports Net neutrality but isn't sure it'll make it into the Senate bill. Like Barton, he said the concept is tricky to define, particularly by law.

Another bill introduced earlier this month by Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, contains detailed language that would prohibit network providers from blocking or degrading Internet connections and favoring those of companies that pay for speedier delivery of their content.

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