Democrats introduce 'Net neutrality bill

After failing last week to add a provision to a telecommunications reform bill, four Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday introduced a free-standing bill aimed at preventing broadband carriers from discriminating against competing Web content or services.

The bill, sponsored by Representatives Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Jay Inslee of Washington state, Anna Eshoo of California and Rick Boucher of Virginia, would create a 'Net neutrality law banning phone and cable companies from charging Web sites for faster data transmission, or blocking their online competitors' content and services. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has introduced a similar bill in the Senate.

The four Democrats' amendment failed, on a vote of 34-22, largely along party lines, when the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved a wide-ranging telecom reform bill last week.

The FCC voted to deregulate DSL providers in August 2005, and backers of a 'Net neutrality law say broadband providers could now charge their competitors Internet tolls and slow down the content of those who don't pay.

"We cannot allow telecommunications companies to hijack the Internet," Inslee said in a statement. "After all, the beauty of the Internet is its open architecture."

Public Knowledge, a group advocating for consumer rights online, praised the new House bill. "[The] legislation recognizes that the cable and telephone companies are threatening to take over the Internet, and that strong nondiscrimination policies are needed to prevent them from limiting consumer choice and favoring their own content and services," Public Knowledge President Gigi Sohn said in an e-mail.

Broadband providers have repeatedly said they will not block or impair their customers' access to competing Web content or services, although some have talked about charging Web sites extra for a faster tier of service.

The House Democrats' bill comes a day after Senators Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) introduced a telecom reform bill similar in some ways to the one that passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee and awaits action on the House floor.

Like the House bill, the Senate bill would streamline the franchising requirements for telecom carriers looking to offer Internet-based television services in competition with cable providers. The Stevens bill would also require the use of a broadcast flag anticopying system to protect digital video broadcasts, and it would require cities considering municipally run wireless broadband networks to first allow private providers to bid on the project.

While the House bill endorses general net neutrality goals, the Senate bill would only instruct the FCC to study whether a net neutrality law is needed. Net neutrality advocates said the Senate bill fails to protect U.S. consumers against broadband providers that want to block or slow competing content or services.

But Randolph May, a senior fellow and director of communications policy at conservative think tank the Progress and Freedom Foundation, praised the Stevens bill for not mandating net neutrality rules. "Especially in light of the fact that presently there are no identified consumer harms that need remedying, this 'study first, mandate later' approach is much to be commended," May wrote in his blog.

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