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Net neutrality fans lose on Capitol Hill

New legislation to revamp telecoms laws, in the works for half a year, does not mandate that all Internet sites be treated equally.

In a modest victory for broadband providers, a highly anticipated bill in the U.S. Congress does not include specific rules saying that some Internet sites must not be favored over others.

Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican who heads the committee responsible for telecommunications legislation, released the text Monday and said that a hearing had been scheduled for Thursday at 10 am ET.

"This bill will produce an explosion of opportunity for American workers, and American consumers will get an array of video services that were unimagined just a few years ago," said Barton, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

A November draft of Barton's bill (click here for PDF) explicitly said broadband providers "may not block, or unreasonably impair or interfere with" Internet access. The final version (PDF), on the other hand, simply gives the Federal Communications Commission the authority to set rules and publish violations.

Under Network neutrality, the companies that own the broadband pipes do not configure their networks in a way that plays favorites. They may not be allowed to transmit their own services at faster speeds, for example, or to charge Net content and application companies a fee for similar fast delivery.


Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, eBay,, Skype and some advocacy groups have been pressing Congress for strict laws requiring Net neutrality, and had been hoping that Barton's bill--called the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act--would mandate it.

"eBay believes that Congress should stand up on behalf of Internet users and small businesses so that they can continue to have unfettered access to all content, applications and services that they wish to use now or in the future," Hani Durzy, the communications director at the auction giant, wrote in an e-mail message Monday. "The Net neutrality provisions in the legislation released today...fall woefully short of that goal."

Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, took aim at Barton's proposal on Monday. "This legislation begins the construction of a multilayered, toll-strewn information superhighway that is out of sync with what has made the Internet work: access for all," said Wyden, who introduced his own bill earlier this month mandating Net neutrality. Digital rights watchdog Public Knowledge added that Barton's bill does not "contain strong enough penalties to discourage misbehavior."

Last week, executives from Verizon Communications and AT&T elaborated on their plans to offer multitiered services and said they have no intention to degrade or block other companies' traffic that rides over the public Internet. Rather, AT&T said, it would like to invest more in video--and simple economics demands a dedicated pipe for that service.

Because Barton's bill does award the FCC some authority, it's not a complete win for broadband providers. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the primary cable lobby group, said in response that "we continue to believe that the better course is for the government to resist injecting itself into a thriving, dynamic market."

Last fall, the FCC published a vague "policy statement" (Click here for PDF) on Net neutrality that said consumers should be able to access the Internet content of their choice. This month, though, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin added that broadband providers must be permitted to invest in their networks and "recoup their costs"--a statement that was widely viewed as taking issue with strict Net neutrality mandates.

CNET's Anne Broache contributed to this report