A divisive proposal requiring all network operators to abide by strict Net neutrality principles resurfaced on Tuesday in the U.S. Senate.
As expected--albeit perhaps not quite so soon--Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe and North Dakota Democrat Sen. Byron Dorgan teamed up again to introduce what appears to be an identical version of their bill, known as the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, which died in the Senate last year.
The bill's reintroduction "marks another step toward ensuring the fate of the Internet lies in the hands of its users and not the hands of a few gatekeepers," Snowe said in a statement.
Net neutrality is the idea that network operators such as AT&T and Verizon should be prohibited from prioritising any content or services that travel across their pipes--for instance, charging YouTube extra fees for the privilege of being delivered faster than, say, Revver.com.
The once low-profile issue catapulted to the public sphere after telecommunications executives began warning more than a year ago that they should have the right to charge extra for premium placement on their network to recoup vast investments in their infrastructure.
That drove Internet companies, consumer groups and a number of high-profile backers--ranging from actress Alyssa Milano to Vint Cerf, one of the Net's technical pioneers--to mount grassroots campaigns calling for federal regulations barring such a practice. They contend that any prioritisation threatens the freedoms that Internet users have always enjoyed. Opponents of such regulations have argued that there's no evidence of a discrimination problem and that new rules would stifle innovation.
The Snowe-Dorgan legislation would bar network operators from blocking or degrading access to Internet content and services, and from preventing consumers from connecting external devices to the network, with exceptions for security and other consumer protection purposes.
The measure would allow prioritisation of content, applications or services only if it is done for all types of that particular content, application or service--and without a fee. That would likely mean, for instance, that Verizon could choose to set aside a dedicated pipe for all user-generated video content, but it would have to make that pipe available to all user-generated video sites, and for free.
The bill also delves outside Net neutrality and proposes that all broadband companies must offer customers the option of purchasing standalone broadband service. It would be up to the Federal Communications Commission to enforce any complaints derived from the bill's obligations.
The Senate action comes on the heels of an FCC decision to accept Net neutrality conditions offered by AT&T on its merger with BellSouth. AT&T has maintained that it offered the concessions primarily to break partisan deadlock over the deal's approval and continues to resist the idea of legislation mandating Net neutrality. In contrast to their Democratic colleagues on the FCC, the two voting Republicans, Chairman Kevin Martin and Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate, also said they had no intention of applying Net neutrality conditions more broadly.
The telephone industry, including AT&T and Verizon representatives, was quick to decry the Snowe-Dorgan bill's re-emergence.
"Government regulation would make it against the law for any company to invest in customised Internet service," said Walter McCormick, president of the U.S. Telecom Association, which lobbies for more than 1,200 communications firms. "That would mean all of us losing advances in home health monitoring, greater security of our financial transactions, new entertainment choices and telecommuting opportunities."
Consumer advocacy groups welcomed the renewed effort, which was co-sponsored by six Democrats--Sens. Barbara Boxer, John Kerry, Tom Harkin, Patrick Leahy, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama--and no Republicans aside from Snowe.
"The legislation is the first step towards a national policy that will ensure that all consumers, not just the most affluent, have affordable access to high-speed Internet services," said Jeannine Kenney, a senior policy analyst with Consumers Union.
When the pair of senators introduced the same language as an amendment to a massive communications bill last year, it failed by an 11-11 vote that was mostly along party lines, with Democrats voting in favour. With the majority tipped slightly to the Democratic side this year, the bill's chances could improve, but are not assured victory. After all, in the Senate, 60 votes are required to prevent the filibusters that often stall contentious bills.
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