The Senate Commerce Committee took in another round of viewpoints on Thursday regarding proposed legislation to rewrite the 1996 Telecom Act, this time focusing on the contentious issue of net neutrality.
Committee members quizzed a series of panelists on Thursday on their support, or lack thereof, for the net neutrality provisions in the Communications, Consumers’ Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006, or S. 2686. The bill is 135 pages and was introduced in early May by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who also chairs the Senate Commerce Committee.
Proponents of net neutrality have charged Stevens virtually overlooked any protections for ensuring the Internet remains open and unfettered. Supporters such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., however, have lauded the bills vague language on the principle, declaring that because no infringements have occurred, traffic prioritization problems do not exist. They also say such problems will not crop up if companies want to keep their customers.
But Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., was especially leery of this contention during Thursdays hearing, trying to wring an answer from Tom Tauke, Verizons executive vice president, on why the carrier is lobbying against net neutrality legislation. Tauke replied Verizon has no interest in charging consumers for access to sites such as Google Inc., but would charge Google for the supply of off-net services, as it would do with any other company.
Indeed, several senators voiced skepticism that big companies such as AT&T and Verizon would in fact not try to deprioritize customer traffic in favor of more revenue-generating deals or to shut out competitors. For example, recalling the highly publicized articles with AT&T and Verizon CEOs who made statements about Google not receiving a free lunch or using pipes for free Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., told Tauke, When I read this, I say, uh-oh.
As the grilling continued, the net neutrality debate seemed to take a new course. Most notably, several witnesses said they support net neutrality consumer protections, but want companies to be able to charge for VPN and other non-public-Internet services. The notion that Verizon wants to restrict content is laughable from a business perspective, Tauke added. He said if Verizon wants to provide a hospital with a VPN for tracking patient progress, that traffic would not interfere with the public Internet. Timothy Regan, senior vice president of Corning Inc., who also testified on behalf of the Telecommunications Industry Association, agreed, saying net neutrality ought to be separated into two baskets — one for consumers and one for off-net services.
I dont see that theres a difference, Boxer retorted.
One of the big issues at the heart of the net neutrality debate is the lack of any definition for the principle. What proponents, such as Amazon.com and the multifaceted SaveTheInternet.com coalition (made up of groups from the left-leaning MoveOn.org to the fundamentalist Christian Coalition), say what they want most is the restoration of consumer protections erased in 2005 when the Supreme Court and the FCC deregulated DSL and cable modem Internet access. Net neutrality was, in fact, regulated until last year, said Paul Misener, vice president of global public policy for Amazon.com, and legislating it would be a reinstatement of the status quo.
The Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) disagreed with that position. Roger Cochetti, group director of U.S. public policy, said the Stevens bill would increase broadband choice, increasing the competitiveness of the organizations VARs. Government regulation is ill-suited to the Internet, he said. Regulation should be the last resort.
The Commerce Committee held the Thursday hearing a week after taking similar testimony on S.2686s video franchising rules. Another round is scheduled for June 13, with the topic still to be announced. The bill likely will have gone through some revising by then, and is slated to face a full committee markup on June 20. S.2686 is the leading possibility for communications law changes in the Senate; the House has its own proposals in the works that would have to be reconciled with the Senates.
Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday passed, 20-13, bipartisan legislation intended to preserve Internet freedom and competition. The bill, an amendment to the 1914 Clayton Act, was sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. (see story)
The Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination act also clarifies that broadband providers are able to protect against the transmission of objectionable content or manage their networks in a nondiscriminatory manner.
The bill now goes to the House floor.
AT&T Inc. www.att.com
Google Inc. www.google.com
U.S. House www.house.gov
U.S. Senate www.senate.gov
Verizon Communications Inc. www.verizon.com
For additional information on current legislation and more, check out the Net Neutrality & Fair Use eBook available at www.xchangemag.com/ebooks/june06_net.html