June 7, 2006 8:15 AM PDT

Senate panel to revisit Net neutrality proposal

WASHINGTON--Net neutrality provisions criticized by Internet companies in a sweeping U.S. Senate proposal could be getting a makeover.

Sen. Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who serves as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said Wednesday that he plans to release a revised version of his committee's broad communications bill because "many members do not believe that the (Net neutrality) provision in the existing bill goes far enough."

Addressing about 300 cable industry representatives at the start of a summit organized by the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, Stevens said he is still working with one major critic--Sen. Daniel Inouye, the committee's top Democrat--on new language that should be available later this week. A hearing on the revised version is scheduled for June 13.

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Net neutrality, or network neutrality, has proven itself one of the most contentious topics that Congress faces as it attempts to rewrite the nation's telecommunications laws this year.

Proponents, including some of the largest Internet companies and a wide array of consumer groups, define it as the idea that network operators should not be allowed to prioritize Internet content and services that travel across their pipes or make deals with companies seeking special treatment. Network operators from the telephone and cable industries, allied with some of the nation's largest hardware companies, have said repeatedly that they have no plans to block, degrade or impair content and argue that new regulations are unnecessary.

Right now, the Senate communications bill addresses Net neutrality by directing the Federal Communications Commission to keep an eye on incidents that could be considered violations of the concept and to report its findings to Congress.

But Democrats and at least one Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee have been pressuring the chairman to incorporate more stringent regulations. Last month that group introduced a bill with a long list of detailed rules prohibiting network operators from prioritizing content as they please.

Stevens said Wednesday that he still has reservations about issuing sweeping regulations "before Congress really knows what the problem is." He said the revision would be focused on "protecting the needs and rights of consumers, preserving network management and stimulating commercial interaction between companies" but was unable to supply additional details.

The senator told reporters after his speech that he didn't plan to give the FCC the power to make new rules on the subject, though the commission would be given the power to take enforcement action related to consumer complaints.

If that's the case, the revised Senate bill could end up taking a similar approach to its U.S. House of Representatives counterpart, which authorizes the FCC to police violations of its broadband use principles and levy fines if appropriate but bars the regulators from making new rules. That technique has earned deep disapproval from Net neutrality fans, who say it doesn't do enough to ward off discriminatory tactics by network operators.

The House measure has already received committee approval and could go up for floor debate and a vote as soon as Thursday.

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