30 Jun Net neutrality will be back, supporters vow
Washington, D.C. – Despite recent legislative setbacks, proponents of net neutrality said their issue would not go away, and they urged members of the United States Senate not to take up a comprehensive telecommunications bill until strong net neutrality provisions are included.
The pro-neutrality group It’sOurNet, a coalition of consumers and businesses, urged the Senate to reject the telecommunications bill following a tie vote in the Senate Commerce Committee that defeated an amendment to ensure that all Internet traffic is treated the same no matter what its source or destination. By a vote of 15 to 7, the committee went on to approve the overall telecommunications bill, minus net neutrality, and it could reach the floor after the Fourth of July holiday break.
In a statement released after the vote, It’sOurNet said the voices of net neutrality proponents would only grow louder once more Americans understand what is at stake.
“The intense debate that resulted in today’s tie vote on net neutrality clearly underscores the Senate Commerce Committee’s discomfort with abandoning rules that until now have ensured an open, innovative, and competitive Internet marketplace,” the group said.
In recent weeks, net neutrality provisions have failed in both houses of Congress. It was the most hotly debated provision of the telecommunications bill that now is more noteworthy for what it does not contain than for what it does – most notably, an expansion of the federal Universal Service Fund contribution base.
Net neutrality is the proposition that broadband providers should not be allowed to prioritize Internet content and services, or make deals with companies that seek special treatment, and it has sparked an emotional debate over who has the Internet’s best interests at heart.
Broadband providers claim they have no plans to block competing Web content, but want to recover the billions of dollars they have invested in running high-capacity fiber optic cables to millions of homes. They would like to do so by charging new fees to provide certain Web content with priority access when routing it across the Internet, a practice that net neutrality advocates say would create a two-tier Internet and price small online firms and consumers out of the premium market.
While some view their concerns as speculative, their big worry is that a handful of large phone and cable companies that provide high-speed Internet access would become gatekeepers of Internet content, deciding who lives in the fast lane and who is mired in the slow lane.
While the vote in the Senate Commerce Committee was largely along partisan lines, this is a debate where Republicans and Democrats seem to mix interchangeably, and it’s hard to identify the players without a scorecard.
Lining up on the pro-neutrality side are a coalition of people and organizations that normally do not link arms, including MoveOn.org and the Christian Coalition, and liberal Democrats like U.S. Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and conservative Republicans like Wisconsin’s Jim Sensenbrenner.
While he favors net neutrality, Sensenbrenner, who represents the state’s 5th Congressional District, approaches the issue from a different angle. He wrote a bill, the Internet Freedom and Non-Discrimination Act (HR 5417), that would make premium Internet fees a violation of federal antitrust law.
Joining net neutrality advocates in the halls of Congress were the likes of Google, Microsoft, e-Bay, and other content providers that object to paying millions of dollars in new fees. Their opposition generated snickers among observers who believe that they would simply pass their costs to consumers.
Both of Wisconsin’s U.S. Senators, Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold, claim to be proponents of net neutrality, and may face a litmus test with their liberal base when voting on the telecommunications bill.
In a statement before the June 14 Senate Judiciary Committee, of which he is a member, Feingold expressed concern that without consumer protections, the Internet would fall prey to the same anti-competitive practices that, in his view, harmed the radio and concert industries after passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.
Feingold said Internet users could have fewer choices because only the content providers who can afford to pay the “corporate toll keepers” would be able to offer a competitive level of service.
“I see a parallel situation potentially developing if we allow Internet access providers to create another pay-for-play system and become de facto gatekeepers to the Internet,” he said. “Without a non-discrimination requirement, certain websites on the Internet could gain an unfair advantage.”
Lining up in opposition to net neutrality are broadband providers like AT&T and other free market advocates who argue that net neutrality would represent a first step toward federal regulation of the Internet. These organizations oppose the detailed rules contained in net neutrality proposals, rules that are designed to prohibit network operators from prioritizing content. They point out that phone and cable companies already have every business incentive to optimize the customer experience.
They include groups like Hands off the Internet, co-chaired by former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry. Needless to say, the final vote in the Senate Commerce Committee was met with Hands-Off applause.
“In the end, the hit parade of hypothetical errors failed to carry the day,” the group said on its website. “Pre-emptive regulation is rarely a good idea, and as many of the Senators’ statements yesterday showed, neither is a vast new expansion of federal power over the Internet.”
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