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Net Neutrality Enhancements Considered in Senate Committee
By: Layne Winklebleck (Free Speech Coalition)
Washington, DC — Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) has modified his version of the proposed telecom legislation to include protections for net neutrality, and has added a new section called “Internet Consumer Bill of Rights Act,” which provides, among other things, that Internet Service Providers shall allow subscribers to access and post any lawful content of their choosing; access any website of their choosing and run any software, application or hardware of their choosing without interference from ISPs, except as required by law. (See section 903 of the draft legislation.)
The revisions, including the Internet Consumer Bill of Rights, are basically an effort at compromise on the net neutrality issues being hotly debated in the Senate between, on one side, the big telecommunications companies such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast — the owners of the pipes — and on the other side, consumer groups joined by information providers such as Yahoo, Google and eBay. The House has already passed a telecom bill, H.R. 5252, in which the principle of net neutrality got short shrift. (See X-Press report, “Net Neutrality Issues Now Up to the Senate,” 6/9/06.)
The Internet originally worked over phone lines, which largely operated under net-neutrality rules. However, many people now access the Internet through cable and DSL. Last year, a Supreme Court case known as the Brand X decision allowed cable providers to operate under different rules than those that applied to phone lines.
If broadband carriers operated under rules of net neutrality, they would have to treat all data equally – not giving special treatment or assigning higher prices to bits of information that are part of streaming video files, multiplayer games and other applications that require large amounts of bandwidth.
SavetheInternet.com Coalition, consisting of such diverse interest groups as Gun Owners of America, Craigslist.com, Public Knowledge, MoveOn.org, the American Library Association, Afro-Netizen.com, the Consumer Federation of America, the Consumers Union, and Free Press, paints a stark picture of looming danger.
“The Internet’s First Amendment is a principle called ‘network neutrality,’” said the group, “that prevents companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast from deciding which websites work best for you — based on what site pays them the most. Your local library shouldn’t have to outbid Barnes & Noble for the right to have its Web site open quickly on your computer.
Senator Stevens’ Internet Consumer Bill of Rights Act goes a long way to reassure some sectors of the Internet world, the adult Internet, for instance, because it defuses the danger of censorship by those who control the pipes. It also helps in terms of the concerns expressed by some that the telecom giants are, increasingly, also content providers and could theoretically set up blocks against the content of competitors. If that idea seems paranoid to you, check out the recent report by Tom Foremski of Silicon Valley Watcher, which makes a case that Cox Cable Internet, for which printed classifieds are a big revenue driver, has throttled access by subscribers to their competitor, Craigslist. Whether that allegation is true or not, the specter of the big telecoms hijacking the Internet and squeezing out competition seems possible without regulations to protect against it. In that sense, Senator Stevens’ revisions to the bill are welcome.
However, the revisions do not deal with the issue of non-discrimination in pricing and may not satisfy the net neutrality advocates.
"The new bill does nothing to prevent the network operators from creating a two-tiered, pay-to-play Internet and does nothing to protect American Internet users and small businesses from discrimination at the hands of the network operators,” said the SavetheInternet.com Coalition.
The Senate committee is scheduled to consider amendments and vote on the measure at a meeting this week.