Politicos propose new action on Net neutrality

House bill aims to make the concept enforceable under antitrust law, while senators continue to ponder their own action. Musician Moby raises voice for Net neutrality

WASHINGTON--The push for new laws mandating Net neutrality principles appears to be gaining steam on Capitol Hill.

The leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee released a five-page bill on Thursday that would embed new provisions requiring so-called network neutrality in existing federal antitrust laws.

Unlike existing proposals in both houses of Congress, the bill was endorsed not only by Democrats but by Committee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican. Michigan Democrat John Conyers, who serves as the committee's co-chairman, California Democrat Zoe Lofgren and Virginia Democrat Rick Boucher co-sponsored the measure.

Called the "Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act," the bill is designed to "provide an insurance policy for Internet users against being harmed by broadband network operators abusing their market power to discriminate against content and service providers," Sensenbrenner said in a statement.

Citing government statistics that 98 percent of Americans have at most two choices for broadband service, Sensenbrenner said such a "virtual duopoly" is ripe for anticompetitive practices, and "a clear antitrust remedy is needed."

Net neutrality, which critics charge is impossible to define, centers on the idea that broadband providers must not be permitted to favor some Web sites or Internet services over others. Network operators argue that they should be entitled to charge bandwidth hogs extra for faster transmission and prioritized placement in order to help finance vast build-outs of broadband infrastructure.

The Judiciary bill would make it illegal under antitrust law for network operators to impose such fees or to fail to provide their services on "reasonable and nondiscriminatory terms." It also borrows language from an earlier House proposal co-sponsored by Boucher that would, for instance, bar broadband providers from blocking, impairing or degrading sites or services and from stopping users from attaching the devices of their choice to the network.

The committee's action was not unexpected, as members had voiced concern over the issue--and asserted their jurisdiction to make new rules--at a recent hearing convened by the committee's antitrust task force.

At a press conference on Thursday, Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who has been a vocal proponent of similar legislation in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he was unaware of the proposals in the rival committee and couldn't comment. He said he remained determined to when a pending telecommunications bill goes to the floor for a vote by the full slate of legislators.

That proposal, which enjoyed support mostly from fellow Democrats, was soundly defeated twice by fairly large margins during earlier votes on a broadband bill in his committee.

"Our goal is to have a full debate and record...where every member stands" on Net neutrality, Markey said at an outdoor press conference where Grammy-nominated musician Moby also spoke out in favor of the bill.

Sparking controversy
Net neutrality became an arguably unintended focus during the first round of the Senate Commerce Committee's sweeping attempt to rewrite the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The hearing was supposed to focus on components of the bill dealing with video franchising and the Universal Service Fund, with a separate hearing on Net neutrality scheduled for May 25. But a handful of senators and witnesses testifying before them couldn't resist voicing their opinions on what has become an increasingly volatile topic.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, said he planned to introduce an amendment that would deal with Net neutrality, though it was unclear Thursday what shape that would take. "It's complicated, no doubt about it, but I think Internet freedom is very, very important," he said. That action likely wouldn't come until later, with a vote on the bill tentatively scheduled for June 20.

California Sen. Barbara Boxer, also a Democrat, said that if Congress didn't take action to protect Net neutrality principles, "We're going to put a lot of people in the slow lane--as a matter of fact, we're going to have a lot of people not able to access the Internet, and it's a very unfair system."

Right now, the Senate's telecommunications bill contains a provision that 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. That's exactly the right approach, Kyle McSlarrow, president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, told the senators Thursday.

"This is the kind of issue that is most appropriately studied a lot more," he said.

Sen. Gordon Smith, an Oregon Republican, said he'd hate to see the Senate's proposal get "hung up" over the topic of Net neutrality but acknowledged the politicians wouldn't succeed in getting broad approval unless they "find a way to accommodate the legitimate interests being put forward on both sides."

Meanwhile, resistance to such new laws is also growing. On Wednesday, several of the world's largest hardware makers sent a letter to Congress decrying new Net neutrality laws.

Republican Sens. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Sam Brownback of Kansas also have joined the opposition against the idea of legislating Net neutrality. In a one-page letter (click for PDF) to their Senate colleagues dated May 16, they argued that doing so would "penalize broadband access providers for making major improvements to the Internet."

The senators also charged that such rules would "deprive parents of new technologies they may use to protect their families from online harm."

As of now, the issue of Net neutrality is being addressed by Congress in a couple of other forms aside from the Markey amendment and the new House Judiciary bill, but each of those measures would have a number of hurdles to clear before becoming law. The first standalone bill came in March from Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, and prescribes the same kind of detailed rules found in the latest proposals. Critics of the laws charge that they amount to unprecedented regulation of the Internet.

The House broadband bill that Markey would like to amend includes a provision that would permit the FCC to police violations of its broadband policy statement, which outlines expectations that broadband providers will allow their users to view sites, run applications and connect devices to the network as they wish, within legal bounds. Net neutrality proponents have criticized that approach as too weak to prevent what they decry as a "fast lane" for those who can afford to pay extra to network operators.

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