Democrats attack move to weaken Net neutrality

Markey: Bill would subject future of Internet innovation to 'the "worldwide whims" of broadband barons'

WASHINGTON -- Key Democratic lawmakers and some Republicans yesterday protested proposed legislation in the U.S. Congress that would weaken earlier attempts to keep broadband providers from discriminating against online content or services offered by competitors.

Several lawmakers, consumer groups and Internet companies told a House of Representatives subcommittee that the so-called Net neutrality provisions in a draft telecom reform bill won't protect Internet users from large broadband providers that want to charge extra to give some Internet services priority over everyone else.

Executives at several broadband providers have said they want to charge new fees to Web content suppliers, said U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat.

"What would be the effect of allowing essentially private taxation of the Internet?" asked Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The draft bill, offered by committee Chairman Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, is a broad-ranging attempt to update the 1996 Telecommunications Act. It would allow traditional telecommunications carriers such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. to skip local franchising agreements as they roll out Internet-based television service in competition with cable TV. Instead, they would seek a national franchise.

The draft, the committee's fourth attempt at writing a telecom bill since late last year, would also require VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) providers to offer emergency 911 dialing services, and it would override a handful of state laws prohibiting local governments from providing broadband services such as Wi-Fi.

Barton and other supporters said the bill will create competition among video carriers.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association criticized the bill, saying giants such as AT&T and Verizon need no help in rolling out video services.

But most controversial was the draft's treatment of Net neutrality. The new draft departs from earlier proposals that included language specifically prohibiting broadband providers from blocking or impairing Web content and applications from competitors.

Instead, the Barton draft would allow the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to investigate blocking abuses after the fact, and it would prohibit the FCC from creating new net neutrality rules.

"That's neither futuristic or efficient, that's chaos," said Markey, ranking Democrat on the committee's Telecommunications and Internet subcommittee. "The bill imperils the future of electronic commerce and innovation to the WWW -- the 'worldwide whims' -- of broadband barons."

A new entrepreneur in "some proverbial garage" won't find an audience for his innovative product if it's confined to an Internet slow lane, Markey said.

Most U.S. residents have the choice of one or two broadband providers, added Paul Misener, vice president for global public policy at Inc. "The phone and cable companies are going to fundamentally alter the Internet in America unless Congress acts to stop them," he said. "They have the market power, technical means and regulatory permission to control American consumers' access to broadband Internet content."

Others suggested any Net neutrality provision is unneeded. Broadband providers have promised not to block and impair services, making Net neutrality requirements "premature," said Walter McCormick Jr., president and CEO of the U.S. Telecom Association.

Consumers don't buy broadband for the transmission network itself, added Randolph May, a senior fellow at conservative think tank the Progress and Freedom Foundation. "If [providers] are going to invest billions of dollars building out new broadband networks, it is safe to assume that the operators will not find it in their interest to block or impede subscribers from accessing services and content that the customers find valuable," May said.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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