Congress Considers New Net Neutrality Bill

Two lawmakers have introduced legislation that would prohibit broadband providers from blocking or impairing Web content from competitors.

Representatives Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Chip Pickering, a Mississippi Republican, introduced the Internet Freedom Preservation Act last week. The bill says it is U.S. policy to "guard against unreasonable discriminatory favoritism for, or degredation of, content by network operators based upon its source, ownership, or destination on the Internet."

The bill would also require the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to open a proceeding on broadband services and consumer rights. The FCC would be required to investigate whether broadband providers have adhered to its August 2005 policy that providers should refrain from blocking or interfering with Web content.

"The open architecture nature of the Internet ... has ensured the Internet's place as the greatest level playing field ever created," Markey said as he introduced the bill. "The goal of this bipartisan legislation is to assure consumers, content providers and high-tech innovators that the historic, open architecture nature of the Internet will be preserved and fostered. [The bill] is designed to assess and promote Internet freedom for consumers and content providers."

Mixed Reception

A group of advocacy groups, as well as Google and Amazon.com, praised the bill, saying it is needed as recent news report have suggested Comcast is slowing its customer access to high-bandwidth applications such as BitTorrent. Comcast on Tuesday filed a document with the FCC defending its practice of engaging in "network management."

Petitions by advocacy group Free Press and online video distributor Vuze to have the FCC prohibit Comcast's traffic throttling "raise important issues about the ability of broadband network operators to engage in reasonable network management to ensure that their customers can enjoy a positive broadband experience," Comcast said in its FCC filing. "Network management is best left to the sound, good-faith judgment of the engineers and proprietors who run and own the networks and who are best able to remedy customer service issues promptly, rather than to regulation."

The FCC has no prohibitions against Comcast's behavior, the company argued. "Free Press mistakenly relies on the [2005 FCC] Internet Policy Statement as creating rules the commission can enforce," Comcast said.

But representatives of the Open Internet Coalition, including Free Press and Public Knowledge, praised the new Markey legislation, saying it would remove doubt about U.S. policy on blocking or slowing Web content.

In the last six months, Comcast and other broadband and mobile-phone providers have repeatedly tried to block content on their networks, said Markham Erickson, the Open Internet Coalition's executive director. Erickson called Comcast's Tuesday FCC filing "remarkable."

"It appears to declare war on Internet users, policy makers and even the FCC," he said. "It essentially says that the FCC has no legal ability to protect consumers from discriminatory behavior."

The Comcast filing called Free Press' complaints about its network management "inflammatory hyperbole." Asked about Erickson's comments on the filing, Comcast spokeswoman Sean Fitzmaurice denied that the company was saying the FCC had no authority to regulate net neutrality.

Renewed Attempt

The Markey bill is not as specific as past net neutrality bills that failed in a Republican-controlled Congress in 2006, but it would set a standard in federal law, said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge. "It's the right bill at the right time," she said.

Without prohibitions against blocking or slowing Web content, broadband providers could sign deals with some content providers and shut out new Internet-based companies, added Richard Whitt, Google's Washington telecom and media counsel.

"Keeping the on ramps to the Web free of undue discrimination is not about Google, it's about the next Google," Whitt said.

Comcast declined to comment on the Markey bill. But Hands Off the Internet, an advocacy group with members including broadband providers AT&T and Qwest, said it could support an FCC study of net neutrality.

"There's no question that a reasoned examination of the facts will demonstrate the folly of net neutrality," the group said in a statement, "However, we are concerned that an effort to seek public input is intended to be a stalking horse for federal Internet regulation. The continued push by special interests to regulate Internet neutrality undercuts the best hope Net users have for faster, more affordable broadband."

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