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Democrats pledge fight over Net neutrality

House Democrats pledge to fight for FCC's right to regulate Internet. Meanwhile, a turf battle.

WASHINGTON--Partisan wrangling over Net neutrality heated up on Tuesday, with Democrats pledging a fight over a broadband bill they say will mean extra fees and content restrictions on the Internet.

A committee vote is expected Wednesday on a Republican-backed proposal called the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act, or COPE Act. Democrats say the bill's portions dealing with Net neutrality don't go far enough to restrict telecommunications companies for levying fees for faster access.

The concept of Net neutrality, also known as network neutrality, says that network operators should not be allowed to charge content providers extra for the privilege of faster delivery or other preferential treatment.

The vote before the House Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to expose a partisan rift, much as a subcommittee vote did a few weeks ago. "The bill before us permits private taxation of the Internet," said Michigan Democrat John Dingell, who has said he would not support the existing legislation unless it was amended. "Private tax collectors could single out certain Web sites to pay extra fees while they select others for preferential treatment."

Republicans defended the measure, saying it was a bad idea to give the Federal Communications Commission expansive powers to regulate the Internet and companies' business models. For one thing, there's still no consistent definition of Net neutrality from industry representatives, said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican. "The best approach on this is caution, because if we legislate incorrectly, there will be unintended consequences," she said.

Because the committee has a solid GOP majority, the bill likely will remain intact unless some Republicans defect during the vote.

During the April 5 subcommittee vote, Republicans (joined by a few Democrats) defeated an amendment giving the FCC more regulatory authority. Democrats have tended to back detailed regulatory language aimed at prohibiting discrimination by network operators, but so far they have not succeeded in inserting it into the bill.

Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said he planned to join with three Democratic colleagues in re-introducing a nearly identical version of that amendment on Wednesday.

"It is a choice between favoring the broadband designs of a small handful of very large companies or safeguarding the dreams of thousands of entrepreneurs, inventors and small businesses," Markey said. "Tomorrow, we will vote to preserve the Internet as we know it or vote to fundamentally and detrimentally alter it."

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, said she was "concerned about e-mails being blocked by advocacy groups and start-ups being shut down by high fees to have their content delivered at adequate speeds."

Rep. Joe Barton, the Texas Republican who chairs the committee, said Democrats would be given a chance to make their case on Wednesday. "We are not going to railroad the mark-up tomorrow," Barton said Tuesday evening. "If we need to roll it over to Thursday, we will, but I'm hopeful we can finish early tomorrow evening or late tomorrow afternoon."

The current version of the Republican-backed bill included some Net neutrality language, but critics say it's not regulatory enough.

Net neutrality turf battle?

Meanwhile, at a separate event on Tuesday, members of a House of Representatives telecommunications and antitrust task force indicated that they wanted to be involved in drafting Net neutrality legislation.

A hearing convened Tuesday by the task force hinted that, at least on the House side, a turf war of sorts may not be far off. "House Judiciary must be at the center of the debate to preserve competition," said Rep. Chris Cannon, a Utah Republican who presided over the hearing. Committee members said they plan to grant the issue careful consideration, though they didn't indicate what legislative action, if any, they might take.

"The continued success of the Internet depends on unfettered interconnection," Cannon said. The FCC has already established principles aimed at ensuring that consumers can access sites, use applications and connect devices to broadband networks as they please, but the agency hasn't laid out a clear "enforcement mechanism," he added.

Turf battles over jurisdiction are anything but rare in Congress, of course. But this development promises to make it more difficult for politicians to get any legislation finished this year, and increases the odds that the Net neutrality debate will continue until well into 2007.

Rep. John Conyers, the senior Democrat on the antitrust task force, indicated that he was troubled by recent statements from telecommunications executives indicating that companies like Google and Yahoo shouldn't expect to ride on their pipes for free. "Are you telling me I can sleep comfortably in my bed tonight because I don't need to take these things seriously?" he asked Walter McCormick, president and CEO of the U.S. Telecom Association, which represents the former Bell companies.

"We need to be able to continue to be able to manage the networks," McCormick responded, citing as an example that network operators should be able to create, for instance, virtual private networks for customers like banks and the federal government that are willing to pay a premium for added security. He stood by a mantra that the companies had no intention to "block, degrade or impair" access to content on their networks.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, asked the panelists how they recommended that network operators pay for expanding their networks in order to relieve the potential for so-called "Internet traffic jams." "You think current revenues are sufficient to continue the kind of rapid build-out that's needed?" he asked.

"These companies are making more money than they ever had before, with a neutral network," said Timothy Wu, a Columbia University law professor and supporter of government neutrality regulation. "What the committee has to really understand is the trade-off. The trade-off is the distortion of competition...there are other ways for them to make money that are less discriminatory."