August 31, 2006 2:44 PM PDT

Net neutrality fans rally in 25 cities

With Congress still dispersed for its August recess, advocates of Net neutrality laws this week took to knocking on office doors of U.S. senators in 25 cities across the nation.

From Seattle to Denver to Montpelier, Vt., small groups of citizens, small businesses, nonprofits and individuals allied with the "Save the Internet" coalition staged rallies on Wednesday and Thursday.

Hoisting orange signs touting their cause, they presented senators' offices with petitions signed by thousands who support legislation mandating the divisive concept, defined as a broad prohibition against prioritizing Internet content and services.

The activities were designed to ramp up momentum for the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, sponsored by Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, and Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican. The proposal was narrowly defeated by an 11-11 vote in the Senate Commerce Committee earlier this summer when it was proposed as an amendment to a mammoth communications bill. The House of Representatives in June rejected a similar measure by a wider margin.

The Snowe-Dorgan plan is expected to surface again when the sweeping Senate communications bill, chiefly sponsored by Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, goes to a vote in the full Senate, although it's unclear how soon that formal debate will resume. The politicians, who return on Sept. 5, already have a heavy agenda and are expected to recess again by early October so some can return to campaigning on their home turf for the upcoming elections.

Internet companies, such as Google and Amazon.com, and their Save the Internet brethren--which include the Christian Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union, and hundreds of other consumer-oriented groups--maintain that the "Internet consumer bill of rights" in the existing communications bill is inadequate.

They're pushing for enactment of the Snowe-Dorgan measure because it includes rules explicitly barring broadband operators from brokering deals with content providers to shuttle their goods at faster speeds or to give them more prominent placement. An absence of such regulations, supporters claim, would interfere with users' ability to view all content on a level playing field, indirectly raise their surfing costs, and keep garage innovators from getting their ideas off the ground.

According to a running tally taken by the Save the Internet coalition, 26 senators have publicly voiced their support for the Snowe-Dorgan approach. Only one of them, Snowe herself, is a Republican. Sen. Jeffords, an Independent from Vermont, emerged in favor this week as well.

Four of the senators siding with the Net neutrality lobby publicly declared their stance just this week, in the midst of the coast-to-coast rallies. (Four more are still waffling; 14 are opposed; and 56 have not yet made their positions public, by the coalition's count.)

"With this momentum across the country, there will soon be an air of inevitability that Net Neutrality is something politicians don't mess with--period," said Tim Karr, campaign director for Free Press, a nonprofit organization that helped to organize the rallies.

The projected vote count on Net neutrality has drawn particular attention because, as with all bills, Sen. Stevens must round up 60 favorable votes in order to stave off a filibuster and move forward with his proposal. Before leaving for the August recess, the committee chairman said he would continue to meet with his colleagues and believed he would secure the necessary support.

Stevens' relatively hands-off approach to Net neutrality regulations continues to receive backing from the powerful cable and telecommunications industries, which have admitted they would prefer to see no new legislation in the area at all. Brushing off concerns raised by Net neutrality fans, lobbyists from those sectors say they have no intention to block or degrade any Internet content and are merely seeking new revenue sources to offset investments in new offerings, particularly Internet Protocol-based video. Some have voiced confidence that their leanings will prevail among politicians.

"The longer this debate goes on, the more lawmakers realize that without any evidence of a problem, there is no good reason to start regulating the Internet," Allison Remsen, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Telecom Association, which lobbies for large and small phone companies, said in an e-mail interview. "The so-called Net neutrality proponents have tried to hijack this debate to bolster their business models, all to the detriment of American consumers."

At least one new supporter has joined the opposition to the Net neutrality lobby in recent weeks. At a conference last week, Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Deborah Platt Majoras, whose agency is charged with policing unfair and deceptive business practices, echoed many of her fellow Republicans in arguing that no new laws are needed. The FTC nonetheless plans to examine the issue.

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Net Neutrality, Olympia Snowe, coalition, Sen., senator

 

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