State governments push for Net neutrality laws

Attorneys general in New York and California say they'd like a federal law prohibiting network operators from offering a "fast lane" on the Internet.

As a U.S. Senate panel prepares for a vote on Net neutrality legislation this week, state attorneys general in New York and California are joining Internet companies in saying that network operators must not be permitted to prioritize certain broadband content and services.

In a letter sent Friday to the leaders of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, urged the adoption of a proposal called the Internet Freedom Preservation Act. This is the first time that state officials have entered the Net neutrality debate.

"Congress must not permit the ongoing consolidation of the telecommunications industry to work radical and perhaps irrevocable change in the free and neutral nature of the Internet," wrote Spitzer, who is running for governor in the fall election. He was referring to the recent mergers between AT&T and SBC Communications and Verizon and MCI.

Backed now by nine Democrats and one Republican, the Internet Freedom Preservation Act would generally bar all network operators from making special deals with content providers to ensure speedier delivery or improved quality of service and would require them to offer all Internet material on an "equivalent" basis.

It is expected to be offered as an amendment to the Communications, Consumers' Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006 (click for PDF), a lengthy bill that the committee plans to resume debating on Tuesday morning.

Spitzer also encouraged the committee to add a provision that would allow state attorneys general and private parties to sue companies that fail to adhere to Net neutrality regulations. Spitzer has led a number of well-publicized lawsuits against companies that have regularly drawn criticism, including a recent foray against a Web company accused of compromising its users' privacy in the midst of offering promises of free iPods, video games and condoms.

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, also a Democrat, also wholeheartedly supports Net neutrality principles, though he wasn't prepared to endorse any particular Senate bill, a spokesman said Monday. Lockyer is seeking the state treasurer post in this year's elections.

"The public is right in viewing this as their Internet and should not be pushed into the slow lane," spokesman Aaron Carruthers told CNET News.com. "They have the right to expect the same access and priority as anyone else to public network services."

The passage of such rules, favored largely by congressional Democrats, remains far from certain. Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, would like to see the bill's current Net neutrality language remain unchanged, a committee aide said Monday.

The existing provisions in the Senate communications bill would put into law an "Internet consumer bill of rights" and give the Federal Communications Commission authority to fine violators--but not make new rules in the area. The nine principles subject to enforcement would include: allowing consumers to access and post any lawful content they please; to access and run any Web page, search engine or application that they choose (including voice and video programs); and to connect any legal devices to the network that they please.

Unlike the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, the larger bill wouldn't prohibit network operators from making deals with content providers, and its mostly Republican supporters would like to keep it that way.

"If that Net neutrality provision goes in this bill, all the (Republican) side's going to vote against it," Stevens told reporters after launching a debate on the broader communications bill last week.

Network operators, for their part, say they are exploring the new business model decried by Internet companies--such as eBay, Google and Microsoft--in order to offset hefty investments in new broadband networks and to enhance the delivery of new, bandwidth-heavy services such as video.

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