WASHINGTON--An influential congressional committee is once again showing support for using U.S. antitrust laws to force broadband providers to treat network traffic in a nondiscriminatory manner.
Under Republican control in 2006, a U.S. House of Representatives panel threw its support behind a bill rewriting antitrust law in a way that would have embedded "Net neutrality" obligations. That proposal, however, never ultimately went any further toward becoming law, and has not been reintroduced.
At a Tuesday afternoon hearing, a House antitrust task force composed of many of the same members indicated the Democratic-controlled chamber may try to revive it. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), chairman of the antitrust task force and the House Judiciary Committee, said he believes antitrust laws should be used to stop broadband providers from exercising business models that give "favored treatment" to certain Internet content.
"If Congress acts, it will not be because we have decided to regulate," Conyers said. "It will be because the Internet service providers have imposed their own new regulation on the Internet and are interfering with its healthy growth."
Antitrust law is the "most appropriate way to deal with this problem," he went on, because it corrects "distortions of the free market where monopolies are cartels have cornered the market and competition is not being allowed to work."
Net neutrality, of course, is the controversial idea that network operators shouldn't be allowed to discriminate against content or applications or charge extra fees. Debate over whether new regulations are necessary to safeguard those principles has been raging since 2005.
The concept has drawn increasing attention, however, ever since Comcast acknowledged it delays peer-to-peer file-sharing uploads, particularly on the BitTorrent protocol. The Federal Communications Commission is weighing whether to take action against the cable giant.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who represents Silicon Valley, said she was quite concerned about the effects of Comcast's network management practices on free speech--that is, peoples' ability to upload content they've created without undue restrictions.
Net neutrality turf wars
Part of the Judiciary Committee's interest in putting its own dog in the Net neutrality fight, however, is clearly political--specifically, a longstanding turf war with the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Last month, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a leader in that committee, reintroduced a bill that would encourage Internet service providers not to play favorites and direct the FCC to consider making more heavy-handed regulations in that area.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who served as chairman of the Judiciary Committee when it passed the antitrust-oriented Net neutrality bill, said Tuesday that he continues to believe antitrust law is the right vehicle for such disputes.
"If we allow our jurisdiction to go to Energy and Commerce, I think we'll see a regulatory structure over the Internet that is not going to be good for the American public and is not going to be good for the Internet," Sensenbrenner said.
Instead, he suggested it's more productive to give people the right to sue Internet service providers for treble damages if they're found to be engaging in anticompetitive practices.
Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), ranking member of the antitrust panel, seemed less inclined for Congress to act in any way, saying he is "concerned that the heavy hand of government could deter investment in innovation and technology that will enable networks to advance in the future."
Content providers like Google and Amazon.com and a slew of consumer advocacy groups have been lobbying for legally binding Net neutrality protections, while network operators like Comcast and AT&T have long opposed any new legislation or regulations in this area. On Tuesday, a prominent entertainment industry voice added to that outcry.
Rick Carnes, president of the Songwriters Guild of America, told the committee that the songwriting profession is like a person "drowning in quicksand" and that Net neutrality proposals would speed that drowning process.
"We need new technologies to detect and deter illegal file sharing," said Carnes, who has written songs for popular country artists like Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire.
Carnes criticized the House Judiciary Committee's previous proposal to enforce Net neutrality through antitrust law. Acknowledging that he is not an antitrust lawyer, he said the bill raised alarms because it would have threatened the efforts of broadband operators, such as AT&T, to filter out and detect transfer of pirated content.
Damian Kulash, lead vocalist and guitarist for the band OK Go, which achieved a cult YouTube following for a snappy choreographed dance routine featuring treadmills, took the opposite view.
Without open, nondiscriminatory access to Internet applications and services, he told the committee, his band may have never become "among the first to have truly found success on the Internet."
Sensing the difference in opinion between the two musicians, Conyers quipped: "Is this new school versus old school?".