Senate negotiations continue over Net neutrality

All-content-must-be-equal proposals remain sticking point for Republicans drafting major telecommunications bill.

WASHINGTON--Key senators who are planning to overhaul the nation's communications laws remain at odds on the controversial topic of Net neutrality.

At a briefing for reporters Monday, Republican aides to the Senate Commerce Committee released a revised version of a sweeping telecommunications bill--but said the portions related to Net neutrality would not be available until later this week. An earlier version of the bill includes no Net neutrality regulations, reflecting the position supported by broadband providers such as Verizon Communications and AT&T.

Aides to Sen. Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who serves as chairman of the committee, and Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, the committee's senior Democrat, are still negotiating new language about whether broadband providers should be allowed to give special treatment to certain types of content or Internet sites, the aides said.

"Does Congress want to get into regulating how much Google pays to Verizon or what deals it makes with Yahoo?...(Stevens') view is that's a matter better left to these multibillion-dollar companies and Congress should focus on protecting the consumer," said Lisa Sutherland, the committee's Republican staff director.

Last Thursday, the House of Representatives approved its own communications bill but rejected a Democratic-sponsored amendment--backed by companies like eBay, and Google--that would have enacted detailed prohibitions against blocking, impairing, degrading or prioritizing content. The final version authorizes the Federal Communications Commission to police violations of its broadband use principles (click here for PDF) and to levy fines if appropriate, but it bars the regulators from making new rules.

In an interview with CNET published Monday, Verizon lobbyist Thomas Tauke said: "It's fair to say that Stevens is committed to moving a bill. He'll probably have a new draft in the next few days. He seems anxious to have the committee move in the next few weeks and have it to the (Senate) floor in July."

Net neutrality, which has emerged as one of the most contentious issues as Congress attempts to rewrite the nation's telecommunications laws, is the idea that network operators should not be allowed to prioritize Internet content and services that travel across their pipes or to make deals with companies seeking special treatment. The concept has received backing from some of the largest Internet companies, a wide array of consumer groups, and entertainers like Moby and Alyssa Milano.

Also on Monday, The Washington Post published an editorial opposing Net neutrality mandated by the federal government. It said that the dangers cited by proponents of Net neutrality "are speculative" and the government "should not burden the Internet with pre-emptive regulation."

The current Senate language, scheduled to be the subject of a committee hearing on Tuesday morning, directs the FCC to monitor incidents that could be considered violations of Net neutrality principles and report to Congress on its findings.

It may change in another revised draft expected to be released as soon as the middle of the week, but it was "premature" to speculate on what shape it would take, the aides said. The committee still plans a vote on a final version of the mammoth bill on June 20.

Network operators from the telephone and cable industries, allied with mostly conservative and libertarian groups and some of the nation's largest hardware companies, have said repeatedly that they have no plans to block, degrade or impair content and argue that new regulations are unnecessary.

Democrats and at least one Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee had attacked the bill's current approach, saying it failed to provide adequate protections. Last month that group introduced a bill with a long list of detailed rules prohibiting network operators from prioritizing content as they please.

That bill could still be offered as an amendment to the broader communications bill, though similar proposals in the U.S. House of Representatives have met with sound defeat both in committee and on the House floor in recent weeks.

"I am 99 percent sure we will have a network neutrality amendment in committee on one side or the other," depending on how this week's negotiations shake out, Sutherland said.

CNET's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.

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