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Senators renew quest for Net neutrality rules

Pair of politicos who pushed last year for strict nondiscrimination requirements for broadband operators are looking to federal regulators to help revive their cause.

The Net neutrality skirmish that swallowed up so much of Congress' technopolitical agenda last year may be gearing up for a comeback. A pair of senators who led the divisive push for the new regulations want everyone to know they haven't forgotten the cause.

Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) aired their views in a joint letter (PDF) filed with the Federal Communications Commission just before the Monday deadline for remarks on an open inquiry into "broadband industry practices."

The senators said they were pleased that the FCC was showing interest in the issue but "would have preferred the commission take the more concrete step of proposing rules to guarantee Internet freedom."

Internet freedom, in the senators' view, is the idea that a broadband operator like Comcast or AT&T should be legally prohibited from charging, say, YouTube extra fees to have its services prioritized over other online video sites. In recent years, cable and telephone companies have said it may be necessary to pursue such a business model to recover investments in new infrastructure, and they don't want regulators dictating how they manage their pipes.

Back in January, Dorgan and Snowe reintroduced their Internet Freedom Preservation Act, which would bar such arrangements. (A Republican-controlled Congress repeatedly defeated similar efforts last year.) The senators said they would still push for passage of that bill but called on the FCC to take "affirmative action" to reinstate "nondiscrimination rules that applied to Internet providers for years."

The FCC, for its part, has already adopted four "broadband connectivity principles" in summer 2005, which dictate consumers should generally be allowed to access the Web applications of their choosing and hook up the devices they please. But Chairman Kevin Martin agreed in March to open an official inquiry into whether stronger language should be added--drawing complaints from the FCC's two Democratic commissioners, who wanted a bolder commitment on the spot.

Martin has made it clear he and that his agency already has ample authority to police any complaints about discrimination that arise. The Federal Trade Commission recently reached similar conclusions after finishing its own inquiry. That report, however, doesn't appear to be derailing plans by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) to reintroduce his own Net neutrality bill sometime after Labor Day.

The senators' letter was one of more than 27,000 comments that have poured into the FCC since it opened its inquiry into the issue this spring. According to a statement Tuesday from the advocacy group Free Press, which also supports strict nondiscrimination regulations, more than 95 percent of those filings came from individuals on its side.