Comcast, AT&T, and other network operators would be expected to refrain from "unreasonable discriminatory favoritism" of content on their pipes under a recrafted Net neutrality proposal introduced Wednesday in the U.S. House of Representatives.
But this time around, the new bill (PDF) sponsored by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of a House Internet and telecommunications panel, isn't directly forcing Internet service providers to follow specific rules. The new bill is an apparent effort to be less prescriptive than his previous efforts, which failed in a Republican-dominated Congress two years ago.
"The bill contains no requirements for regulations on the Internet whatsoever," Markey said in a statement upon introducing the bill. "It does, however, suggest that the principles which have guided the Internet's development and expansion are highly worthy of retention, and it seeks to enshrine such principles in the law as guide stars for U.S. broadband policy."
Rep. Charles "Chip" Pickering (R-Miss.), who has argued against Net neutrality regulations in the past, is now co-sponsoring the rewritten measure, which is being called the Internet Freedom Preservation Act.
The modified approach is an apparent attempt to address the howls of protest from network operators, who have argued that previous Net neutrality bills in Congress amount to unnecessary Internet regulations.
The old bill decreed that broadband operators have certain duties: not blocking or degrading content, not prioritizing some applications over others, and not imposing "surcharges" for premium placement, to name a few. Violators would have been subject to penalties. A pending Senate bill, which hasn't yet seen any action in this session of Congress, takes a similar approach.
The new Markey-Pickering bill, by contrast, proposes adding four broadband policy statements to existing federal communications law. Those statements build upon a set of broadband policy principles that the Federal Communications Commission adopted years ago, including recommendations that the government allow consumers to reach the lawful content and applications of their choice and hook up whatever devices they please, provided that they don't harm the network.
Violation of those principles would not carry any penalties under the new bill, according to a Markey aide. The bill does, however, leave open the possibility of tougher rules later. One principle dictates that the government should adopt and enforce "baseline protections to guard against unreasonable discriminatory favoritism for, or degradation of, content by network operators based upon its source, ownership, or destination on the Internet."
The bill would direct the FCC to study broadband providers' current practices and whether "enforceable" rules governing Internet openness are necessary. The FCC would also be required to stage at least eight public "broadband summits" at "geographically diverse locations" around the United States to discuss the state of competition, consumer protection, and consumer choice in broadband.
The bill's introduction arrives amid a recent stepped-up focus in Washington on network management practices. The FCC is weighing whether it's "reasonable" for companies to slow down peer-to-peer traffic on their networks, as Comcast has admitted to doing in what it argues is an attempt to keep all its subscribers surfing smoothly.
The same consumer advocacy groups that support Net neutrality legislation have asked the FCC to declare that such practices aren't, in fact, "reasonable," and should be forcibly stopped.
The FCC also announced on Tuesday that it's holding a February 26 public hearing at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass., to hear from experts on network management issues.
Fans of Net neutrality laws--including Amazon.com, Google, and a number of consumer advocacy groups--support Markey's latest proposal, heaping praise on the new language before the congressman had even formally introduced it. They have long argued that without strong Net neutrality principles enshrined in law, there will be nothing to stop network operators from, say, charging YouTube additional fees to be delivered to consumers faster than a rival video-sharing Web site.
The Markey bill is "an important step in ensuring the Internet remains open for consumers and innovators," said Markham Erickson, executive director of the Open Internet Coalition, whose members include major search engines, electronic retailers, librarians, and public-interest groups.
Network operators, by contrast, have long opposed Net neutrality regulations because they argue that they need the freedom to manage their networks as they see fit and that new obligations could discourage investments in building out their pipes.
Scott Cleland, the chairman of NetCompetition.org, a group whose members include all the major cable, telephone, and wireless companies, said Markey's new approach doesn't blunt those concerns. While the "letter" of the new Markey bill may not include those new regulations, he said, the "spirit" of it does, creating the same heartburn for opponents as the earlier version.
Updated at 9:53 a.m. PST: Comcast declined to comment on the measure, and cable industry representatives were not immediately prepared to comment.
The U.S. Telecom Association, which represents large Internet service providers like AT&T and Verizon Communications, blasted the new bill. Group president Walter McCormick said it would "blindly legislate a new national broadband policy, without regard to its implications, and then require the FCC to spend the next year determining whether the Internet is being constructed, managed, and operated in conformance with this new government mandate."