Net neutrality: Meet the winner

Verizon's chief Washington lobbyist, Thomas Tauke, has the political muscle to turn his company's wishes into law.

Thomas Tauke must be one of the most ecstatic lobbyists in Washington right about now.

As Verizon Communications' executive vice president for public affairs, policy and communications, Tauke has spent the last few months embroiled in a fiery debate over Net neutrality, the concept that broadband providers must be legally required to treat all content equally.

And now he's won. Thursday evening, in a testament to Verizon's lobbying prowess, the U.S. House of Representatives definitively rejected extensive Net neutrality regulations in a 269-152 vote.

Now the telecommunications bill approved by the House heads to the Senate, where Sen. Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who heads a key committee, has been an ally so far. But in an apparent nod to companies like, eBay and Google that are pressing for Net neutrality rules, Stevens did say last week that he might be willing to bend and consider more regulations.

Tauke, a lawyer, is a former member of Congress from Iowa and former chairman of the United States Telecom Association, a telecommunications trade association.

CNET spoke with Tauke about Net neutrality and Verizon's view of what Washington, D.C., might do next.

Q: What's your reading of Thursday night's vote in the House?
Tauke: We were very encouraged by the vote on Net neutrality, not only because it was a strong vote rejecting the Markey amendment, but also because we had 30 percent of the Democrats join us despite really strong pressure from the Democratic leader. We felt that in both cases the votes were strong and set the right policy direction.

(Editor's note: Rep. Ed Markey had offered the amendment mandating Net neutrality that was far more extensive than the rules already present in the bill. Click here for PDF of the amendment.)

So now we start talking about the Senate, which is sometimes more difficult to predict.
Tauke: The Senate is always an interesting challenge because the process is more open. We'll see how it unfolds.

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 floor in July. That's a tight time frame.

Our hope is that Sen. Stevens and the committee will see the wisdom of trying to hold this bill to a relatively narrow set of issues rather than have it become a bill that addresses all of the issues that arise in the telecom space.

Won't it be easier for you to block a bill you don't like than for its supporters to get it enacted?
Tauke: It seems to me that there are two options. One is you get a bill that covers an array of issues and has broad bipartisan support. Or you reach a situation with senators saying, "We agree on these issues now and let's move on those."

Because of the urgency of addressing universal service, we think there may develop a desire to take those things that (have broad agreement) and move those. But you never know what might happen in the Senate. If this becomes a bill that includes every issue that falls into the telecommunications space then (it may become too controversial to go anywhere).

Do you think there's enough time before the November election for a final vote to happen?
Tauke: The big challenge is a floor vote in the Senate. If you can get the Senate to act on the issue, the chances of getting a bill through (a conference committee) are very high. The real challenge from a procedural perspective is being able to move through the Senate floor, in part because of the nature of the Senate and the need for relative consensus to develop.

What do you think of the not-entirely-serious proposal from Rep. Charles Gonzalez, a Texas Democrat, that would extend the concept of Net neutrality to Web sites like those operated by, eBay, Google and Microsoft? Would you support something like it as leverage against them?
Tauke: We have never tried to visit the worst aspects of regulation on other industries. There has always been a time when people have said, "Let's dump this on cable." Generally our posture has been that if regulation is hindering the development of an industry, we ought to get rid of that regulation, not visit it on others. I don't think we have any interest in visiting those proposed regulations on Microsoft, Amazon, Google or any of the other players in the Internet space.

It has puzzled me, however, that these companies have supported even the language in the Barton legislation. Principle No. 4 (click here for PDF) in the Barton language covers not just us. It covers application providers. Isn't that what Microsoft, Google and Yahoo do? Could eBay strike the deal they did with (Yahoo over) PayPal? I don't know if they could if the policies in the Barton bill were implemented.

The Net neutrality issue needs to be very carefully reviewed. We need to understand the problem we need to solve and be very precise in the language that's enacted in the statute. We've considered ourselves in the past champions of Net neutrality. But now that Net neutrality is so amorphous and covers so many things, we get nervous about sloppy language, unintended consequences and regulation down the road.

What precisely do you believe you couldn't do if Rep. Ed Markey's Net neutrality proposal had been adopted?
Tauke: The way we read the Markey amendment, we may not have been able to offer video services in competition with cable if his amendment had been adopted. Certainly we want to be able to offer the video services. We obviously believe that's in the consumers' interest.

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