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Democrats lose House vote on Net neutrality

In vote largely along party lines, Democratic politicians lose effort to have FCC regulate "neutrality" on the Net.

A hotly contested Democratic bid to enshrine extensive Net neutrality regulations in the law books failed Wednesday in the U.S. House of Representatives.

By a 34-22 vote, members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee rejected a Democratic-backed Net neutrality amendment that also enjoyed support from Internet and software companies including Microsoft, and Google.

"I'm concerned about e-mails being blocked from advocacy groups, of all sides," said Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat who supported the amendment. "I'm concerned about start-ups that may be shut down."

While efforts to rewrite telecommunications laws often languish in obscurity, advocacy groups and corporations have raised public alarms about the section of the 34-page bill pertaining to Net neutrality (also called network neutrality).

Opponents of the bill's Net neutrality portion say it doesn't go far enough to target possible errant behavior by AT&T, Verizon Communications and other broadband providers. A "Save the Internet" coalition has even been created and boasts members such as the left-leaning, the American Library Association and the libertarian-conservative group Gun Owners of America.

The groups say the Federal Communications Commission must be given power to prevent broadband providers from doing things like charging content providers extra for the privilege of faster delivery or other preferential treatment.

"Did the Bells create the Internet? Did the cable companies create the Internet?" asked Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and sponsor of the amendment. "The answer is no. The Internet was built on a different model, a public interest model, funded by American taxpayers."

For their part, major broadband providers have repeatedly pledged not to block traffic or censor Web sites. Instead, they say, it will only be economically feasible to invest in higher-speed links if some bandwidth can be reserved for paid content. In an interview with CNET, for instance, Verizon Chief Technology Officer Mark Wegleitner said movie-quality video could be delivered to DSL subscribers if the copyright owner would pay.

Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican and committee chairman, pressured his fellow GOP members to vote against Markey's amendment--even going so far as to remind them that he opposed it and to call in wayward colleagues who had strayed out into the hallway.

Net neutrality is "still not clearly defined," Barton said. "It's kind of like pornography: You know it when you see it."

Barton argued that Net neutrality proponents were overstating their case and exaggerating the dangers of a more laissez-faire approach. "I don't think all the Draconian things they (predict) will happen if we don't adopt their amendment," he said.

Because the committee has a GOP majority, Markey's amendment never had a chance of passing unless some Republicans could be convinced to defect from the party line. Activist groups had tried to ratchet up the pressure, with a letter-writing campaign to politicians, and announcing early Wednesday that Intel had joined the Net neutrality coalition. It didn't work. By the time of the vote, around 1:30 p.m. PDT, only a handful of Republicans supported the amendment and a few Democrats opposed it. Democrats could try again to amend the bill on the House floor, but that tactic only works if the Republican leadership agrees to permit it, which seems unlikely at this point.

The amendment was backed by three other Democrats--Anna Eshoo of California, Jay Inslee of Washington, and Rick Boucher of Virginia. It was also rejected in a subcommittee vote, but supporters took heart that Wednesday's vote was closer than the subcommittee's vote of 8-23.

The final version of the telecommunications bill does include some Net neutrality regulations, including charging the FCC with investigating any "violation" of fair treatment principles. In a case last year dealing with Vonage, the FCC already took action against a broadband provider accused of interfering with Internet phone calls.

But it does not do what Amazon, Google, Barry Diller's InterActiveCorp, Yahoo and their allies want: to forcibly prevent by law a two-tier business model from ever being adopted on the Internet.

In a letter to the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday, the chief executives of those companies and their allies said: "We call upon you to enact legislation preventing discrimination against the content and services of those not affiliated with network operators and thereby preserve network neutrality."

It's unclear what will happen in the Senate. A key senator, Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, said last month that a bill to rewrite telecommunications laws may not grant the FCC power to enforce Net neutrality concepts. During a hearing in February, senators seemed divided over the need for new laws.

But a pair of U.S. senators is circulating a draft bill that adopts stiff Net neutrality regulations. It's backed by Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, and Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, and takes largely the same approach as the Markey amendment.