Push for Net neutrality mandate grows

Seventy companies--including major lobbying muscles for 50-plus set--call for law to combat threats to Web's openness.

The American Association of Retired Persons, better known as the AARP, may be more famous for its lobbying muscle on pension plans and Medicare, but now it's taking up a new platform: keeping the Internet free and open for the age 50-plus set.

The 35 million member group is among a growing list of companies and organizations that signed a new letter Thursday urging senators to require Net neutrality principles by law. Also called network neutrality, it's the idea that the 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.

"We're not traditionally someone who would be involved in technology legislation and things of that nature, but this has a direct impact on our members and their lifestyles," said AARP spokesman Mark Kitchens.

After all, the baby-boomer contingent is going online in droves, he said. In a survey of members in the age 50-to-59 range, 72 percent reported accessing the Net on a regular basis, and the number of Net-surfing retirees in general is growing "exponentially," he said.

Executives at Verizon Communications, BellSouth and the now-merged AT&T and SBC Communications have recently talked about the desirability of such a two-tiered Internet in which they could choose to favor some services--especially video--over others. Those companies are spending billions to improve their networks and appear to be trying to find new sources of revenue.

No company seems to have created such an Internet "fast lane" yet, prompting the big telecommunications companies and Cisco Systems to argue that concerns are theoretical and new laws are unnecessary. Free-market analysts have argued that it's an issue best regulated by the marketplace itself, albeit with ample penalties for "anticompetitive" behavior on a case-by-case basis.

Chatter in recent weeks has stretched all the way from Capitol Hill , where Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon recently introduced a bill that would ban a Net "fast lane," to San Jose, Calif., where attendees at an annual Internet phone conference engaged in debate .

Thursday's letter was prompted in no small part by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens' tentative comments earlier this week , said Art Brodsky, a spokesman for the advocacy group Public Knowledge, which has been coordinating some of the pro-Net neutrality efforts. Stevens said he supported the idea but wasn't sure it would make it into his committee's much-anticipated overhaul of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which is expected sometime after the Easter congressional recess.

Sixty-four companies and organizations sent to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which wrote Net neutrality provisions into an earlier telecommunications reform draft but not to the extent desired by several Internet content providers . A new draft of that legislation is still in progress.

Besides the AARP, the new letter counts five other new signatories: Adobe Systems, BT America, the Digital Media Association, Sony Electronics and the Business Software Alliance. The original group included Amazon.com, the American Association of Libraries, EarthLink, eBay, Google, Match.com, Microsoft, Skype, TiVo and Yahoo.

The AARP's position is no different from that of other consumer-oriented lobbying forces on the list: that "unfettered" Internet access is essential to any consumers' bill of rights. Said Kitchens: "We are concerned that if open access is not protected, consumers will have less access to the Internet and smaller content providers might get squeezed out of the marketplace."

CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.

 

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