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Senate Telecommunications Bill Update
By: Layne Winklebleck (Free Speech Coalition)
Posted: 6/29/2006

Washington – The Senate Commerce Committee has voted to send a broad telecommunications bill — the Communications, Consumer’s Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act — to the full Senate for a vote. A range of issues are included in the bill, including money for emergency communications, unlicensed wireless devices in the broadcast band, labels for analog TV sets, digital TV and radio content protection and more.

Also attached to the bill is a requirement that commercial Web sites must not place "sexually explicit material" on their home pages upon pain of felony prosecution–and, in addition, they must rate "each page or screen of the website that does contain sexually explicit material" with a system to be devised by the Federal Trade Commission. This part of the bill is in the form of a seven-page amendment by Senator Conrad Burns (R-MT) and is virtually identical to S3499, a bill introduced earlier by Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ). Both the Burns amendment and S3499 provide for penalties of up to 5-years in prison for non-compliance with the labeling requirements. (In an earlier FSC report we quoted CNET News to the effect that the bill carried a 15-year prison sentence. However, CNET News subsequently amended their report.)

The Burns amendment gives Attorney General Alberto Gonzales what he asked for in April when he proposed a legislative initiative, including mandatory self-rating for commercial adult Internet websites. (See X-Press Report, “Justice Proposes Legislation,” 4/21/06).

The “Communications, Consumer’s Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act” does not include protections for net neutrality. As reported earlier in an Xbiz story by Steve Javors posted on the FSC Website, Democratic amendments to protect net neutrality failed to obtain a majority in the Committee by a vote of 11-11. However, the battle over net neutrality is not over yet. It is by no means clear that there are enough votes on the floor of the Senate to overcome a filibuster and already Senator Ron Wyden has placed a hold on the telecom bill, an informal action that represents a possible intention to filibuster.

 “Without a clear policy preserving the neutrality of the Internet and without tough sanctions against those who would discriminate, the Internet will be forever changed for the worse,” said Wyden.

 “The large interests have made it clear that if this bill moves forward, they will begin to discriminate,” said Wyden, adding, “A Verizon Communications executive has called for an ‘end to Google’s free lunch.’ A Bell South executive has said that he wants the Internet to be turned into a ‘pay-for-performance marketplace.’ What they and other cable and phone company executives are proposing is that instead of providing equal access for everyone to the same content at the same price, they will set up sweetheart arrangements to play favorites. Without net neutrality protections, this bill is bad news for consumers and anyone who today enjoys unlimited access to all of the Net’s applications, service and content.”

Opponents to net neutrality protections in the telecom legislation cite free market issues.  Said Christopher Wolf in an ABC news editorial:

 “If [net neutrality] passes, Amazon and other big online companies would gain a billion-dollar loophole to escape paying their portion of the huge deployment costs necessary for tomorrow’s Internet.

 “If you want to understand why these companies (Amazon, Google, Microsoft et al) are pushing so hard for these regulations, consider what tomorrow’s Internet is going to look like. You’ll enjoy movies, high-def TV, 3-D gaming, and other data-rich services zipping into your living room. Doctors will watch and give real-time advice during surgeries thousands of miles away. Distance education will blossom.

“However, the lynchpin of all these benefits is a cutting-edge communications system. Deploying this system is exceedingly expensive – tens of billions of dollars – and America is already far behind many other nations.”

The question for adult entertainment, of course, is whether the telecom giants can be trusted when it comes to controversial forms of Internet speech. On the positive side, the “Communications, Consumer’s Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act” (See above) does include the “Internet Consumer Bill of Rights,” which was added by Committee Chair Ted Stevens (R-AK) and which may help protect against overt censorship of adult entertainment. (See our earlier FSC report) But the Internet Consumer Bill of Rights relies on the Federal Communications Commission for oversight and enforcement. That is hardly encouraging, judging from the abominable FCC record in recent years of pandering to right-wing groups when it comes to broadcast indecency.

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