Senator wants to ban 'fast lane' for Web

Bill would bar Net providers from charging content providers, retailers for speedier service.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
4 min read
Network operators would be barred from blocking or degrading Internet connections and favoring those of companies that pay for peppier access, according to a Senate bill introduced Thursday.

Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said his measure will foster "equal treatment" for all Internet content and dispel worries that telecommunications providers will play favorites in the future.

Because Wyden's proposal represents the most aggressive legislative attempt to dictate what kind of Internet services are permissible or not, it's likely to provoke a political spat between proponents of so-called "network neutrality" and the traditionally influential telecommunications industry. Executives at Verizon Communications, BellSouth and the newly merged AT&T and SBC Communications have recently talked about the desirability of a two-tiered Internet in which some services--especially video--would be favored over others.

"The big network operators are saying, 'We built the network; we own the network; everybody's basically got to go along with what we're saying.' What I'm saying is, 'No, the consumers built the network; the subscribers built the network. They paid for the network. That is what this is all about,'" Wyden told reporters in a conference call.

The Federal Communications Commission would be given power to police violations and hand out "cease and desist" orders, according to the bill, titled the Internet Non-Discrimination Act. Wyden said that he didn't oppose companies offering different speeds of service at different prices, a practice already undertaken by several major Internet providers, provided that content is treated equally within each level of service.

No broadband provider has proposed to block certain Web sites. But they have said Yahoo, for instance, could pay a fee to have its search site load faster than Google. Other possibilities include restricting file-swapping applications that hog bandwidth, or delivering their own video content faster than a similar service provided by rivals.

BellSouth pledged in a statement on Thursday not to block or degrade "legitimate" Net traffic, but said it would not support Wyden's bill. "Without a managed network, the only way customers will be able to be sure they can enjoy high-bandwidth services is by upgrading to higher-speed connections whether they need them for everyday applications on not," said Herschel Abbott, the company's vice president of governmental affairs. "That choice should be the customer's choice, not the government's choice."

AT&T also said it will not block or degrade content. It said in a statement: "At this stage, we're exploring different product models, but feel strongly that this is an issue that has to be solved in the marketplace."

No "fast lane" on the Net?
Sen. Ron Wyden's Internet Non-Discrimination Act sets extraordinarily specific regulations for what kind of network rules are allowed and what is prohibited. It says:

• A network operator may not "block, degrade, alter, modify, impair, or change any bits, content, application or service" transmitted over its network.

• It can't "discriminate in favor" of its own content or that of its partners--for instance, by allocating additional bandwidth to certain services.

• It may take only "reasonable and nondiscriminatory" measures to guard against spyware, malware, viruses, spam and pornography. What the government considers "unreasonable" measures are not permitted.

• "Emergency communications" must be given priority, though it's unclear how this would work in practice. What counts as emergency communications is not defined. Would a Microsoft security alert qualify, or a government announcement of a blizzard or hurricane?

• Anyone who thinks a network operator has done something illegal can complain to the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC then has seven days to make a preliminary ruling. Appeals from the FCC's decision can be made to a federal district court.

With a few exceptions that were quickly remedied by the Federal Communications Commission, no telecommunications provider appears to be blocking Internet traffic and demanding payment to lift the block. The FCC also has adopted a nonbinding policy statement saying that Americans are "entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice."

The U.S. Telecom Association, which counts both large and small telecommunications providers as members, said Thursday that the bill was unnecessary because "the FCC clearly has the authority and has already demonstrated the will to protect consumer choice and address cases of blocking, impairment or degradation."

Telecommunications providers generally argue that they have the right to be compensated for money spent in building the networks and to create a "fast lane" for those willing to pay up. Intrusive federal legislation, they say, would reduce the incentive to invest in speedier networks in the future.

On the other side are Internet content and application providers, which say Net neutrality requirements are essential to preserve the Net's traditional openness.

Dozens of technology companies and advocacy groups sent a letter Thursday to the House of Representatives' Commerce Committee, urging that "Congress take steps now to preserve this fundamental underpinning of the Internet and to assure the Internet remains a platform open to innovation and progress."

The list of groups includes Adobe Systems, Amazon.com, the American Association of Libraries, EarthLink, eBay, Google, Match.com, Microsoft, Skype, TiVo and Yahoo.

Other proposals in Congress address network neutrality--including a draft bill before the House Commerce Committee--but technology companies say those don't go far enough. One proposal, from Texas Rep. Joe Barton, a Republican who chairs the panel overseeing telecommunications law, says providers "may not block, or unreasonably impair or interfere with, the offering of, access to or the use of any lawful content, application or service provided over the Internet."