Internet 'fast lane'? Not so fast
Debate over Net neutrality transformed in 2006 from a below-the-radar murmur into a divisive political rallying cry complete with YouTube videos, online petitions, television and newspaper ads, and even a Capitol Hill appearance by pop musician Moby.
It started more than a year ago when big telecommunications executives proclaimed that Google and their ilk should no longer expect "free rides" on telecom broadband pipes. In turn, disturbed by what they deemed an unprecedented "fast lane" for the highest-bidding online content makers, Internet companies began nudging Congress for action, and consumer groups soon followed suit.
Thus, the great Net neutrality debate of 2006 was born. Derided as "Net neutering" by opponents of the proposed regulations and trumpeted as "Internet freedom" by proponents, Net neutrality is the idea that broadband providers should not be allowed to prioritize Internet content shuttled across their systems.
Fans of regulations, including Google, Amazon.com and eBay, say companies like Verizon and Comcast shouldn't be allowed to charge YouTube, for instance, extra fees for the privilege of having its videos delivered more speedily than Revver.com's. But foes of new laws, mostly network operators and makers of networking hardware, say companies need the option of offering multitiered services to help pay for vast investments in their infrastructure. They also maintain they generally have no plans to stymie or degrade any subscriber's Net usage.
When the telecom execs began stirring up trouble for Internet companies, both chambers of Congress happened to be in the midst of pondering rewrites to the nation's communications laws, designed to reflect the Net's unforeseen prominent role in society. No new law was sent to the president's desk this year, and Net neutrality was a major reason why.
The first, and arguably most aggressive, attempt at satisfying Net neutrality advocates surfaced in March. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, touted his Internet Non-Discrimination Act as a means of requiring "equal treatment" of all Internet content.
Wyden's proposal never went anywhere but foreshadowed a partisan split on the issue. With the exception of Maine Republican Olympia Snowe in the Senate, Democrats tended to back legislation proposing the sort of antidiscrimination rules sought by Internet companies.
Most Republicans who voiced opinions on the issue said they remained unconvinced that a regulatory approach was appropriate. They said market forces and consumer outcry would be a strong enough incentive against discrimination by network operators and sympathized with telephone and cable companies that believed new laws were premature without further proof of real-world problems.
The House ultimately backed that limited approach in June when it rejected a Democratic-backed amendment aimed at installing stricter regulations in a final iteration of the Energy and Commerce Committee's communications bill.
After cycling through a number of drafts of its own, the Senate Commerce Committee, too, ultimately shot down stricter Net neutrality regulations. But the 11-11 vote against that amendment, which occurred a few weeks after the House took action, promised to set the stage for a heated Senate floor debate.
That never happened--in part because of an abbreviated election-year schedule, and in part because Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (of "the Internet is a
series of tubes" fame) wasn't sure he could muster the 60 votes necessary to block a filibuster of the bill.
Now that the Democrats are set to take charge of both chambers, Net neutrality advocates say they're optimistic that their priorities will be transformed into law. Opponents of the regulations, not surprisingly, would beg to differ.
If some telecommunications carriers get their way, consumers could end up handing over more for the broadband content and services they use.
Some say Congress must act now to prevent the creation of a "two-tiered" Internet. Others are reluctant to pass laws in what they call the absence of a visible problem
Bill would bar Net providers from charging content providers, retailers for speedier service.
Verizon, AT&T offer companies special pipes. They want to extend that concept to content delivery.
New legislation to revamp telecom laws, in the works for half a year, does not mandate that all Internet sites be treated equally.
Coalition says FCC needs power to police Internet to ensure broadband providers follow "Net neutrality" rules.
Draft represents the most significant rewrite of laws dealing with video, satellite and broadband communications in 10 years.
Politicians rush to introduce their own versions of broadband regulation; new Democrat-led proposal joins existing ones.
House of Representatives sides with broadband providers like Verizon and AT&T over Internet companies.
Verizon's chief Washington lobbyist, Thomas Tauke, has the political muscle to turn his company's wishes into law.
Politicians try again to find middle ground among fans and foes of Net neutrality regulations, but critics aren't satisfied.
Narrow vote complicates Internet companies' efforts to prompt Congress to enact new regulations.
Why do Internet pioneers Vint Cerf and Dave Farber disagree over whether the feds should mandate Net neutrality?
Net neutrality is holding up a massive Senate communications bill, meaning a final vote could be delayed until 2007.