House panel explores Net neutrality antitrust law

Musicians, groups at political odds, testify

WASHINGTON -- Congress may need to amend antitrust law to keep broadband providers from interfering with Internet traffic, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said today.

Lawmakers may consider resurrecting legislation similar to a bill that failed in 2006, but which would have made it an antitrust violation for broadband providers to block or impair competing Web-based content and applications, said U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat and the committee chairman.

Today, independent musicians and bloggers can gain the same attention as established bands and large news sites, but broadband providers have recently attempted to block or slow some Web content, Conyers said at a hearing of the committee's Antitrust Task Force. "The open architecture of the Internet is under siege," he added. "The problem is that many of the innovations we've enjoyed on the Internet would have never occurred under this proposed regime."

Among the people speaking out for a Net neutrality law at the hearing were staffers from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Christian Coalition of America, which are often at political odds, and the band OK Go, whose low-budget video, in which the band members dance on treadmills to their song "Here It Goes Again," has been watched more than 31 million times on YouTube and propelled the group from moderate to mainstream success.

The Christian Coalition of America is concerned about recent cases where Verizon Wireless temporarily blocked text messages by the abortion-rights group Naral Pro-Choice America, and where AT&T Inc. censored comments by Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder that were critical of President George Bush. Vedder's comments were carried in a webcast concert sponsored by AT&T, said Michele Combs, vice president of communications for the coalition. Even though the conservative group doesn't agree with the political positions of Naral Pro-Choice, it is concerned that broadband providers will block other political speech, Combs said.

Comcast's attempts to slow BitTorrent in some situations could prevent Internet users from downloading copies of the Bible, Combs added.

Without laws requiring Net neutrality, Internet users might not get a chance to see Web content unaffiliated with the broadband providers, including independent music videos, added Damian Kulash, OK Go's singer and guitarist.

After the band's first CD, OK Go was "struggling for every fan we could find, and, frankly, struggling to pay our bills as well," Kulash said.

The band's first homemade video, filmed in Kulash's back yard, was viewed "several hundred thousand times" within a month, he said. "We realized that more people had actually clicked through to this video than had purchased our first record after 18 months of touring," he said. "We now ... sell real records."

Without neutral networks, this type of home-brewed promotional campaign would not be available, Kulash added.

While no broadband providers were called to testify today, other witnesses and lawmakers spoke out against a new law regulating the Internet. Some Net neutrality laws could prevent broadband providers from deploying filtering technologies to block the unauthorized upload and download of music files, said Rick Carnes, president of the Songwriters Guild of America.

Illegal file-trading has devastated the music business, but the technology industry is finally coming up with ways to stop unauthorized downloads, said Carnes, who's written songs recorded by Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire and other country music stars. "There is evidence that the marketplace might finally be working here to reduce Internet piracy, so it's with great concern that I read of proposals that would prevent ISPs from managing their networks," he said.

Rep. Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican, also questioned the need for new Net neutrality rules. "The Internet has flourished in a relatively regulation-free environment," he said. "Legislation is not always the right answer. Competition is."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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