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Why Net neutrality means more federal regulation

U.S. Senator Jim DeMint says the term has become a nebulous catchall for competing public policy issues.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee will vote on the contentious issue of Net neutrality, a positive-sounding yet destructive idea that would allow the government to regulate away the future of the Internet. This year, both the House and Senate have been engaged in the difficult process of rewriting our antiquated telecommunications laws. The overarching idea is to bring the benefits of competition to consumers by streamlining the video franchising process. This will allow more service providers to enter the cable market and begin offering Americans more choices at lower prices.

However, Net neutrality threatens to hold this needed reform hostage. This term has become a nebulous catchall for a number of competing public policy issues. To illustrate the current level of confusion: Neither the House Energy and Commerce Committee nor the Senate Commerce Committee could arrive at a conclusion of what Net neutrality really means. Senator Ted Stevens, R-Ark., rightly expressed his frustration that defining it was like "defining a vacuum."

Supporters of Net neutrality generally fall into three main categories. Some advocacy groups, like the Christian Coalition and MoveOn.org, worry that without explicit prohibitions in place, network owners could get away with blocking or degrading Web sites based on their religious or political content. Corporations, like Google, Yahoo and eBay, simply don't want to have to pay for high-capacity bandwidth their businesses might require for advanced services in the future. A third group believes the Internet should be managed with heavy-handed public utility-style regulation or government price controls.

If we go any further toward regulation of the Internet, we risk the grave consequences associated with legislating in the dark.

In reality, the definition of Net neutrality boils down to the government telling network owners that they can't provide higher speed or more capacity for Internet sites or services that have different needs to serve their consumers. It would also restrict the ability of these network retailers to reduce costs to consumers by charging content providers differently based on their network requirements.

The bottom line: This unnecessary government regulation would discourage investments in broadband networks because it would give government control over them and limit the ability of Internet network retailers, such as cable, wireless, satellite and telephone companies to provide the highest quality and lowest price services to their customers.

Proponents of this regulatory bonanza say that without government interference, networks will block basic Internet services and Web sites to consumers. Yet this has not happened without federal regulation. Unlike the current video franchising problem, Net neutrality remains only a theoretical threat. Even a content producer such as Amazon.com, which is advocating for these new regulations, testified to Congress that a problem does not currently exist.

It would be commercial suicide for any network provider to limit the ability of their customers to access any site or receive any service: Their customers would simply go elsewhere! Consumers have a growing number of choices of networks, and this competition will force networks to continuously upgrade their services. Federal regulation, on the other hand, would only reduce the quality and access of Internet services for all Americans.

In response to arguments raised by Net neutrality advocates, Chairman Stevens sought common ground by adding language establishing a "Consumer Bill of Rights" in the recently released third draft of the Senate telecommunications reform bill.

Although I will support the bill as currently drafted, I am concerned that this new language is still too prescriptive and will have unintended consequences. And it's a certainty that if we go any further toward regulation of the Internet, we risk the grave consequences associated with legislating in the dark; namely, driving away the investment needed to upgrade networks for the next generation of broadband services.

As this debate moves forward, we cannot allow the confusion raised by so-called Net neutrality to be the poison pill that prevents Congress from passing long-overdue telecom reform. We must not risk the future growth of the Internet and all the benefits that this reform would bring to consumers, by growing government regulation in the name of trying to fix a problem that does not now--and may not ever--exist.