Net Neutrality Backers Pin Hopes on Senate Action

Less than two weeks after hopes were dashed that the House of Representatives would include strong net neutrality language in a telecom bill, backers of the approach to ensure Web services companies unfettered access to consumers across high-speed networks are pinning their hopes on lawmakers in the U.S. Senate.

The Senate is poised to take up the same telecom legislation that the House passed recently after it rejected proposed amendments that would have guaranteed some form of network neutrality, by ensuring equal access to high-speed Internet connections for all.

More Action Needed

Neutrality supporters, who include Web services firms such as Google, tech giants such as Intel and some consumer groups, got a boost Monday when Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, a Republican who is chairman of the Commerce Committee, introduced what he’s calling an “Internet Consumer Bill of Rights.”

That amendment to the telecom reform act — which is aimed primarily at making it easier for telecom firms to enter the broadband television business — would authorize the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to levy fines as a remedy for consumer complaints about limited access to Web services.

Some who back legislation to require open access to high-speed networks say the bill of rights approach doesn’t go far enough and offers only after-the-fact remedies rather than a law mandating openness.

The language of the amendment may also not explicitly prevent the type of two-tiered Internet that net neutrality’s staunchest supporters say is looming. The legislation would not prohibit services from being placed on slower networks, for instance, or prevent cable and telecom companies from charging different service providers different rates.

It is seen, instead, as a compromise meant to let some of net neutrality’s most ardent supporters vote in favor of the larger telecom bill, which enjoys broad bipartisan support. Another pending amendment contains stronger language that would assure network neutrality by making it illegal for network owners to discriminate among various types of traffic.

Vote Coming

Stevens’ committee could vote on the telecom bill and the consumer protection provisions as soon as Thursday with a full Senate vote to follow.

That would likely be preceded by another round of intense lobbying. Before the House vote earlier this month, Google urged its users to contact their representatives directly, offering direct links to their e-mail address, Web sites and fax numbers.

To date, however, telecom industry lobbyists have been able to hold off any major efforts to build network neutrality into the new legislation, with amendments being handily defeated when the measure was debated in the House. Telecom companies say there is no need for the legislation, since there are no instances of known blocking of traffic or of relegating certain traffic to a so-called Internet “slow lane.”

Those companies also say the rapid evolution of the telecommunications and Internet industries and the fact that they have spent billions to create the high-speed networks that reach into consumers’ homes and workplaces, demand flexibility in regulation.

The debate takes place amid the backdrop of the rapidly emerging field of video-over-Internet, which promises major change in the status quo of traditional cable television. Firms such as Google, Yahoo, eBay and other supporters of net neutrality say they are likely to face difficulties in reaching consumers if cable and telco companies see them as a direct threat. In other words, if consumers are able to get comparable video feeds from Yahoo as from their cable provider, the cable provider will have a strong incentive to make their offering faster and smoother than the Web services rival’s offering.

The Senate does include some strong and powerful net neutrality backers, some of whom have been quick to criticize Stevens’ amendment as a watered down solution.

Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, the top-ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee, said the bill as now drafted “marks a further step backward for consumers, and it calls into question our commitment to passing a bipartisan communications reform package.”

Stalemate Ahead?

Some observers say the best net neutrality supporters can hope for is that the current legislative session draws to a close without the telecom reform bill being passed and signed into law. That could happen if the House and Senate versions are starkly different, especially since the session will be shortened as some senators and all members of Congress are facing elections in November.

Stevens’ amendment, meanwhile, failed to sway many of the bill’s critics. “This doesn’t ensure the essential neutrality of the network,” said Mark Cooper, research director for the Consumer Federation of America. He said the language appeared to be meant to lull consumers into complacency and noted that a diverse group of advocacy groups — including the right-wing Christian Coalition and the liberal — remain concerned about the future of the Internet without strong neutrality provisions.

The rapid changes on the Internet and in the telecom industry might argue in favor of a continued low-key approach from federal lawmakers and regulators, said telecom analyst Jeff Kagan. The argument has been that Internet innovation happened because the Web was allowed to develop largely without government interference. “No one is suggesting the days of development and invention are over,” he noted.

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