A rift in Washington over Internet regulation is showing signs of mending, with a key politician signaling that stiffer federal regulation of broadband providers would be acceptable.
Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Tuesday afternoon that the current version of his telecommunications bill that has been assailed by Internet and software companies on charges that it provided broadband providers too much latitude would be revised before a scheduled vote in the morning.
The replacement bill, Barton said, will give more flexibility to the Federal Communications Commission to address violations of so-called Net neutrality mandates. Net neutrality, also known as network neutrality, refers to the idea of the federal government forcibly preventing broadband providers from favoring some Web sites or video streams' connection speeds over others.
Barton said at a hearing that the revised measure, which was not immediately available, will "beef up the enforcement tools at the FCC's disposal to address violations," increase fines for violations and require the FCC to take action promptly when violations are alleged. It will be sponsored by Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican who heads a telecommunications subcommittee.
This is something close to a flip-flop from Barton's earlier position. He told reporters last week that "I'm not convinced that we really have a problem with Net neutrality," and that most politicians don't have any idea what the term means anyway.
The compromise appears to be a way to pacify companies such as Microsoft, Google and Yahoo, which have complained that Barton's initial bill doesn't go far enough in forcing broadband providers to operate their networks only in ways approved by the federal government. Liberal advocacy groups including the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the Consumer Federation of America wrote a letter on Tuesday saying the bill "simultaneously strips the FCC of its authority establish Net neutrality rules, leaving consumers exposed to anticompetitive tactics that will reduce competition and inflate consumer prices."
Rep. Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat, said he thought the details of the proposed complaint process were "sufficient" but don't go far enough to ensure "meaningful Net neutrality." He said he'd back an additional amendment during Wednesday's meeting of the telecommunications subcommittee.
Broadband providers aren't talking about blocking traffic. Rather, in an interview last week with CNET News.com, Verizon Chief Technology Officer Mark Wegleitner said his employer would like to offer ways to do things like offer faster services that would prioritize video content--but it would be economically viable only if the content provider could pay a fee.
Upton said his amendment would require the FCC to resolve such complaints within 90 days and would institute penalties of up to $500,000 per violation of its principles.
Along with Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who serves as co-chairman of the House panel, and two other Democrats, Boucher says he is planning his own amendment. "If a fast lane is necessary, perhaps for video or gaming, then all applications of a similar kind from any content provider should be permitted in the fast lane without charge," Barton said.
Markey used Tuesday's round of opening statements to reiterate his concerns about what he claimed were gross inadequacies in the current bill's Net neutrality sections. "We will either vote to preserve the Internet as we know it or instead vote to fundamentally and detrimentally alter it," Markey said.
Separately, a pair of U.S. senators circulated a draft bill on Tuesday that would throw a weighty blanket of Net neutrality regulations over broadband providers. It's backed by Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, and Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, and takes largely the same approach as a similar Senate bill introduced last month.
The draft bill says broadband providers must provide connectivity speeds "at least equal to the speed and quality of service" that the operator offers for its own content or that of its affiliates, and "make available the same bandwidth" to everyone.
CNET News.com's Anne Broache contributed to this report.