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Senate panel proposes Net user 'bill of rights'

Politicians try again to find middle ground among fans and foes of Net neutrality regulations, but critics aren't satisfied.

WASHINGTON--The latest Net neutrality provisions in a mammoth Senate communications bill stopped short of giving Internet companies and consumer advocacy groups all the assurances they've requested.

Unveiled formally at a briefing here for reporters on Monday, new provisions in the latest draft of the sweeping Consumer's Choice and Broadband Deployment Act would allow the Federal Communications Commission to police subscribers' complaints of "interference" in their Internet activities and to levy fines on violators.

Specifically, the bill (click here for PDF) would require all Internet service providers to adhere to what the proposal calls an "Internet consumer bill of rights." The nine principles outlined under that heading 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 they please to the network.

Carve-outs would exist for network management purposes, such as parental control technologies and security software.

All Internet service providers, if they're not already doing so, would also be obligated to offer broadband access on a standalone, or "naked," basis--without also requiring, for example, purchase of telephone or cable subscriptions.

But critics say the latest draft, scheduled for an initial committee vote on Thursday afternoon, refrained from addressing a major complaint of advocates of network neutrality--that is, the idea that network operators should give equal treatment to all content that travels across their pipes.

Under the new proposal, "the Internet still ends up split into Lexus lanes and dirt roads, and an FCC rendered powerless to protect American consumers," the It's Our Net Coalition, a group in favor of Net neutrality mandates, said in a statement Monday. Backed primarily by Amazon.com, eBay, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, the group includes other members such as the Christian Coalition, the Association of Research Libraries and the Consumer Federation of America.

They'd rather see passage of a bill introduced by North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan, Maine Republican Olympia Snowe and seven other Democrats that would flatly prohibit network operators from making deals with content providers and charging premium prices for the privilege of speedier delivery or other special treatment--what they disparagingly call a "two-tiered" Internet.

Some form of that proposal will likely be offered as an amendment to the Senate bill at a committee vote scheduled for Thursday afternoon. But its prospects may not be good--a similar, Democratic-backed amendment was soundly defeated in the House, and Senate Republicans have indicated strong opposition to the idea.

Network operators, for their part, have said repeatedly that they have no intention of blocking or degrading their subscribers' Internet activities and have deemed bills like the Snowe-Dorgan one a solution in search of a problem. Supported mostly by conservative groups, they have defended the business model decried by Net neutrality fans as a way to guarantee better quality of service for high-bandwidth applications and to offset what they describe as vast investments in new fiber.

Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, had emphasized in earlier remarks that he didn't want to get involved in regulating the way that companies do business--a "battle of the titans," he called it. He said instead that he believed it was important to offer protections for consumers, and his bill is designed to reflect those views, committee aides said Monday.

The new language followed ongoing negotiations between Stevens and Co-Chairman Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat. Inouye and other Democrats had criticized the original version of the sweeping broadband bill, which simply instructed the FCC to scrutinize the state of broadband competition and to report back to Congress on its findings, for not going far enough. The latest draft retains that provision in addition to the others.

Inouye said in a statement Monday that he still wasn't satisfied with the latest draft's provisions, saying they "utterly fail to protect consumers and preserve an open Internet."

The Senate's latest approach is similar to a version approved earlier this month in the House of Representatives' communications bill. Rather than legislating a detailed "consumer bill of rights," the House addresses the Net neutrality issue by giving the FCC the power to fine violators of its broadband access principles from last summer (click here for PDF). Neither bill would allow the FCC to create new rules--an idea that has also come under attack by Net neutrality fans.

The Senate version isn't immune from new complications. The Senate Judiciary Committee recently indicated it might offer a new legislative proposal that would police violations of Net neutrality under antitrust law. A similar approach offered on the House side was approved initially by the House Judiciary Committee but has stalled since then, failing to gain acceptance of an amendment to the larger House communications bill.