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Fight looms over Net neutrality in Senate

First day of debate on massive communications bill brings no vote on concept, but politicians stake out positions.

WASHINGTON--The first day of the Senate Commerce Committee's debate on a massive communications bill ended without any votes related to the divisive concept of Net neutrality.

But Senate Democrats and a lone Republican on Thursday pledged again to codify the antidiscrimination mandates sought by Internet companies and consumer groups, while Republicans cautioned that tinkering with the existing language could cause the entire 159-page proposal to collapse.

The committee, which adjourned because of floor votes after only two hours of debate, plans to resume debate on the Communications, Consumers' Choice and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006 (click here for PDF) on Tuesday morning, said Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican. If approved by the committee, the measure would still need to go to the full Senate for additional debate and final votes.

"It is my hope we will continue to seek compromise on this issue before us," Stevens said. More than 200 amendments on the numerous topics covered by the bill have been filed for consideration.

But when it comes to Net neutrality, Stevens said he intended to hold firm on the existing language. It would establish an "Internet consumer bill of rights" and give the Federal Communications Commission authority to fine violators--but not make new rules in the area. The nine principles subject to enforcement would include: allowing consumers to access and post any lawful content they please; to access and run any Web page, search engine or application that they choose (including voice and video programs); and to connect any legal devices to the network that they please.

"Until someone really defines (Net neutrality), why should we destroy a bill? And we will" by changing the provisions, Stevens told reporters after the meeting.

Net neutrality, according to its proponents, centers on the idea that network operators must give equal treatment to all content that rides over their pipes. The Stevens bill has drawn attack from advocates of the concept because it wouldn't prohibit network operators from making deals with content providers for the privilege of, say, faster delivery or more prominent placement.

As expected, North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan and Maine Republican Olympia Snowe both indicated they would offer principles from their "Internet Freedom Preservation Act," which meets the Net neutrality advocates' demands, as amendments to the bill. A number of other Democrats on the committee backed those plans.

Republicans largely remained silent on their own plans for amendments. Several who subscribe to free-market beliefs had already voiced strong reservations about the idea of a Net neutrality mandate at last week's final hearing on the bill.

Nevada Republican John Ensign sounded the loudest alarms against further regulations on Thursday. He flatly rejected the pro-Net neutrality camp's criticism of the bill, saying the proposal is a "good compromise" that fully protects their interests.