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New broadband bill draws fire

House proposal doesn't include federal regulations mandating "Net neutrality." Internet companies protest.

Internet companies including Google, Microsoft and Yahoo are protesting new federal legislation that would not strictly regulate how broadband operators can organize their network.

In a letter to Congress on Tuesday, the companies told Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, that his bill to revamp telecommunications laws "would fail to protect the Internet." Barton is the chairman of the House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce Committee.

Instead of bowing to requests from Internet businesses, Barton sided with one of Washington's most potent lobbying forces: telecommunications companies, including DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable providers, that spread around far more money in political circles.

A CNET News.com report published this week shows that the Internet industry is being outspent in Washington by more than a 3-to-1 margin.

AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon Communications spent $230.9 million on politicians from 1998 until the present, while the three Internet companies plus Amazon.com and eBay spent only a combined $71.2 million. (Those figures include lobbying expenditures, individual contributions, political action committees and soft money.)

Network neutrality is the idea that the companies that own the broadband pipes may not be able to configure their networks in a way that plays favorites--allowing them, for example, to transmit their own services at faster speeds, or to charge Net content and application companies a fee for similar fast delivery.

Internet companies, Skype and liberal advocacy groups have been pressing Congress for strict laws requiring Net neutrality, and had been hoping that Barton's Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act would mandate it. Instead, Barton sided--not entirely, but enough to inspire Tuesday's letter--with broadband providers.

"This bill would allow for such a fundamental change in the paradigm of the Internet that it would frustrate the reasonable expectations of the tens of millions of Americans who go online," the letter to Barton says.