Net Neutrality Efforts Suffer Setback

U.S. Internet companies and other advocates of guaranteed network neutrality suffered a setback Thursday when an effort to tack a net neutrality amendment onto a larger cable reform bill could not muster enough votes.

After several hours of debate, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 269 to 152 to kill an amendment to the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act (COPE) that would have made it illegal for broadband network owners to discriminate against Web traffic.

Democrats who proposed and backed the amendment framed the debate as a critical one about the future of the Internet and of innovation, saying that the openness of the Web is one reason why technology has advanced as fast as it has.

“The future Sergey Brins, the future Marc Andreessens, of Netscape and Google … are going to have to pay taxes” to network owners, said Rep. Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts who helped craft the net neutrality amendment. “This vote will change the Internet for the rest of eternity.”

Lawmakers were lobbied heavily in the days leading up to the debate and vote, with Google calling on its users to add their voices to the fray and free-market groups saying that a law encoding net neutrality would represent the first heavy-handed regulation of the Internet, which they say has thrived in part because the government has avoided stepping in to lay down rules.

Tiered System Seen

Backers of net neutrality will live to fight another day. They will likely turn their attention to the Senate, which has yet to schedule debate on several bills that are circulating on the topic.

Still, the setback represents a serious blow to their efforts to use the bill, which is designed to make it easier for telecom companies to begin offering TV services over Web connections, as a vehicle for a broader debate on the ownership of and access to high-speed networks.

Owners of those networks say they need flexibility to ensure their billions of dollars worth of investments in laying high-speed cable and fiber optics are not stranded. Backers of net neutrality say without legislation, a two-tiered Internet will emerge, with companies giving preferred access to some companies and relegating others to a slower tier where Google, Yahoo and other Internet companies will find it difficult to offer the robust high-bandwidth services expected to be the hallmark of the Internet of tomorrow.

“Unless the Senate steps in, this vote marks the beginning of the end of the Internet as an engine of new competition, entrepreneurship and innovation,” said Consumers Union policy analyst Jeannine Kenney.

Kenney and others said the attention drawn to the net neutrality debate by the action of the House could help energize voters to raise their voices in time to make a difference when the Senate takes up the issue. While that could happen soon, the entire issue may not return until early 2007, some observers say.

Praise From Some

Among those hailing the vote was the Hands Off The Internet coalition, a group supported by companies such as AT&T and BellSouth.

“Bipartisan common sense won out over the bottom lines of a few big online companies,” said Mike McCurry, the group’s co-chairman. Backers of neutrality would in essence “shift the cost of building tomorrow’s Internet onto the backs of consumers,” he added.

The COPE Act does contain a provision dealing with network access, authorizing the Federal Communications Commission to investigate complaints about broadband providers blocking access or impairing delivery of Internet content and allowing fines of up to US$500,000 for doing so. Opponents say that after-the-fact approach will not be enough to prevent damage to Web companies and leaves the door open for a two-tiered Internet, with the language not explicitly prohibiting a so-called “slow lane” where certain content could be relegated.

Cable and telephone companies are seen as more likely to favor certain content as the types of services Web companies provide converge with their own video offerings.

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