June 14, 2006 10:51 AM PDT

Senate ponders policing of Net neutrality offenses

WASHINGTON--Taking cues from earlier proposals in the House of Representatives, key senators on Wednesday said they too are pondering legislation that would police violations of so-called Net neutrality under antitrust law.

The idea that network operators must grant equal treatment to all Internet content and applications that use their pipes is "very, very high on the agenda," Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said at a hearing here.

Internet innovators are understandably "concerned their access could be cut off, degraded or become an expensive barrier to entry," said Specter, whose committee has jurisdiction over antitrust issues.

Specter said he was working with Sen. Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who leads the Senate Commerce Committee, on a "coordinated plan" to address the issue. He told reporters after the hearing that he had no clear time line for when a proposal would surface.

The Commerce Committee, for its part, has not yet finalized the Net neutrality provision contained in its sweeping communications bill, which is scheduled for a committee vote late next week.

One contingent--composed primarily of Democrats, consumer advocacy groups, and Internet companies like Google, eBay and Amazon.com--would like to see detailed regulations in the bill barring network operations from blocking, degrading and prioritizing Internet content. Another group, backed largely by Republicans and network operators, would prefer to see no new rules at all. Or, as a compromise, they propose further study--which the Senate bill currently contains--on the issue by federal regulators.

The House of Representatives' version of its communications bill, approved last week, addresses the Net neutrality issue by giving the Federal Communications Commission the power to enforce its broadband access principles (click here for PDF) and to slap steep fines on violators.

It was unclear precisely what approach the Judiciary Committee would take. Specter, for one, indicated that he would prefer looking at the issue on a "case-by-case" basis rather than issuing a "general rule" about what network operators can and cannot do--an approach favored by Internet companies. He said it may be more productive to negotiate less formal "standards" for network access with the players involved because writing new laws is "extraordinarily difficult, candidly, when you have the giants on both sides of these issues."

Judiciary Committee Co-chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said he would like to see a "strong bill" akin to a proposal offered by Republican Jim Sensenbrenner and Democrat John Conyers on the House side. Known as the "Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act of 2006," that bill proposed, among other things, making it illegal under federal antitrust law for network operators to impose priority-access fees on content providers or to fail to provide service on "reasonable and nondiscriminatory terms."

In a brief appearance at Wednesday's hearing, Sensenbrenner urged renewed pursuit of his approach, which won by a 20-13 vote in committee but was not accepted as an addition to the broader House telecommunications bill.

There's "a clear risk that broadband providers will leverage dominant market power to discriminate against competitors, and preselect, favor or prioritize Internet content over their networks," Sensenbrenner told the senators.

Others on the committee questioned the need for "preemptive" action against a problem they're not convinced exists. If the discrimination that Net neutrality advocates fear does occur, such a public outcry will develop that "the chairman will be required to hold this meeting in this largest room in the Capitol, and there will be lines wandering all the way down to the White House," said Delaware Democrat Joseph Biden.

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4 comments

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A double edged sword...
>Others on the committee questioned the need for
>"preemptive" action against a problem they're not
>convinced exists.

We know there may not be a problem right now. We also know that there will be a problem if something is not done to prevent the problem from occurring. How do we know? Because big business is involved and history is replete with incidents where big business runs amuk and must be reigned in. Business leaders have an obligation to their shareholders as well as their own wallets. Therefore, we KNOW they will misbehave!

On the flip side...

We also know that the politicians almost never get the legislation right and that they too are preoccupied with maintaining their wallets, or more precisely, the re-election war chests.

We are soooo screwed!
Posted by (63 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The opolies with provide all the content
you need. FOX, Dinsey, MSN, and GE. They will buy the bandwith. The independents will be in the slow lane. Free Press becomes the FEE Press. Want to download a file get Mircosofts get the version in 1 min want open source get it in one hour. "In Big business we trust in America". Should be the moto of the con-gress. BIG Business knows whats best stop the free thinkers and let us get the sheep in line.


You can be independent as long as you act and think like me. Join the other party if you want to be different.
Posted by pmm6 (11 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Let Past Performance Be The Guide
Of course there will be "problems" if the telco's aren't made to behave. They have already failed to deliver the promised high speed broadband roll-out but cashed in the $200 billion in subsidies, tax cuts, et al. Why should they be trusted now? The problem is that the major ISP's aren't content to just be "pipes" while they see the Google's of the world reel in the profits. So now your ISP sets up it's own content delivery such as on demand TV. While they make noises about the costly infrastructure investment they are building to deploy these new services in reality the existing bandwith will be degraded so that their own content will get priority treatment. Then a marketing strategy of "double dipping" becomes irresistible. A two prong grab for money by shaking down large content providers to assure fast connectivity through the ISP. Secondly the "tiered" packaging of internet service to make customers pay for a non-degraded connection and "premium services" that you may not even want from your ISP but must pay for to access wide bandwith.
Sure, we can wait a year or two for this to unfold and then hold our breath will the prostitutes -err "politicians" in Congress decide to flap their jaws about it. Good luck with that!
Posted by zanzzz (138 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Biden on Net Neutrality
One can almost imagine tossing a porkchop to a ravening dog and
Joe Biden would be the one reacting in wonderment that the dog
actually gulps it down.
Posted by SFRick (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
 

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