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Net Neutrality Gets New Support From House Judiciary, Senate

Net neutrality principles got a push from the House and Senate this week with the introduction of two new bills, even as the Bells continued their calls for politicians to reject measures that would ensure broadband providers do not discriminate against the people or companies using their networks.

On Thursday, F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, followed through on his pledge to the competitive community to take action against possible antitrust violations arising from the megamergers and telecom act rewrite efforts. In response to the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement (COPE) Act of 2006 which glosses over net neutrality, a major sticking point for Sensenbrenner Sensenbrenner introduced the Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act of 2006 as an amendment to the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914.

The Clayton Act is part of the Sherman Antitrust Act, which lawyers used in their antitrust case against Microsoft Corp., for example. The Clayton Act prohibits monopolistic practices in, among other areas, corporate activities. Sensenbrenner said he wants to amend the act to require network providers to interconnect with the facilities of other network providers on a reasonable and nondiscriminatory basis; operate their networks in a reasonable and nondiscriminatory manner so nonaffiliated providers of content, services and applications have equal-opportunity access to consumers; and refrain from interfering with users ability to choose the lawful content, services and applications they want to use.

Citing statistics showing most Americans buy their broadband access from a cable or phone company, Sensenbrenner said such a virtual duopoly creates an environment ripe for anticompetitive abuses.

This legislation will provide an insurance policy for Internet users against being harmed by broadband network operators abusing their market power to discriminate against content and service providers, Sensenbrenner said. While I am not opposed to providers responsibly managing their networks and providing increased bandwidth to those consumers who wish to pay for it, I am opposed to providers giving faster, more efficient access to certain service providers at the expense of others.

Sensenbrenner introduced the bill with the support of John Conyers, D-Mich., who said the Internet, in its current form, is at risk because of companies that want to create what he called pay-to-play access.

This approach would stifle innovation and diminish free speech on the Internet, he said. This bill would write into law a common-sense approach that when an entity with a monopoly or duopoly of market share uses its power to hijack someone elses content, it is a violation of the antitrust laws.

Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., co-sponsored the bill. Boucher has been open about his attempts to ensure net neutrality principles in a rewrite of the 1996 Telecom Act. He has been working with the House Commerce Committee, and now the House Judiciary Committee, to try to get the standard implemented in a rewrite. The House Commerce Committee in early May rejected such a move; Boucher and his colleagues then stated their intention to present the net neutrality case before the Judiciary Committee, which oversees antitrust and anticompetitive issues.

The Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act will give certainty to entrepreneurs, investors and others who seek to deliver innovative ideas to market that they may do so without fearing discrimination, Boucher said.

The House Judiciary Committee is expected to consider Sensenbrenners bill next week. Thats welcome news for competitive carrier association COMPTEL, but not so for BellSouth Corp., and likely the other RBOCs as well. COMPTEL President and CEO Earl Comstock called Sensenbrenners bill a clear demonstration that members of the House Judiciary understand the dangers posed by the reconsolidation of Ma Bell and the adverse impact that it could have on the open Internet. This bill is a great step in the right direction toward establishing much-needed safeguards.

BellSouth, on the other hand the only ILEC to issue a response to the introduction of Sensenbrenners bill opposed the act, calling it an attempt to fix a nonexistent problem.

“Consumers are poorly served by this legislation, said Herschel Abbot, Jr., BellSouths vice president of governmental affairs. The end result of this legislation is that consumers will be forced to bear the entire cost of the Internet. Moreover, if network service providers cannot offer customers a quality product, something the details of this legislation would all but prohibit, then the opportunity for a bigger, better, faster broadband will be something available only in other countries.

The controversy over net neutrality, and whether the principles should be included in a telecom act rewrite, has been swirling for several months, ever since Edward Whitacre, CEO of AT&T Inc., told Business Week that companies such as Google Inc. don’t have any fiber out there. They don’t have any wires. They don’t have anything. They use my lines for free and that’s bull. For a Google or a Yahoo! or a Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes for free is nuts!” Proponents of net neutrality legislation have recalled the blocking of Vonage service last year by Madison River Communications, a CLEC headquartered in North Carolina, as evidence that providers will indeed bar traffic they dont like if the principle is not federally enforced. Companies including BellSouth, Verizon Communications Inc., and AT&T in clarifying statements following the Whitacre interview, have said they will not block traffic.

Still, a number of politicians dont buy that argument and have been introducing a flurry of bills calling for the implementation of net neutrality arguments. Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., were, on Friday, the latest to do so. Snowe and Dorgan both are members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which has taken the lead in telecom act rewrite efforts. They said their bill the Internet Freedom Preservation Act would ensure all content, applications and services are treated equally and fairly on the Internet because providers would be prohibited from blocking, degrading or prioritizing service on their networks.

What has made the Internet such a remarkable success is the ability of people everywhere to experience a world of their own choosing on their own terms, said Snowe. This freedom has fostered an unprecedented exchange of information and ideas that has led to an explosion in consumer choice, the creation of new businesses, and the spread of democratic ideals around the globe. Unfortunately, if Congress does not act, the age of digital democracy will come to an end.

Among its stipulations, the Internet Freedom Preservation Act would specify that customers must be able to buy standalone broadband. It also would allow the FCC to issue monetary penalties for violations, while requiring it to address complaints within 90 days of their filing. The FCC also would have to report to Congress on any net neutrality violations.

COMPTEL praised the Snowe-Dorgan legislation.

The fact that there have been three bills introduced in the last few weeks to preserve net neutrality indicates the growing bipartisan support for this important issue, Comstock noted.

Meanwhile, earlier this week, more than 30 companies sent a letter to Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, expressing their support for the COPE Act. Those companies include equipment makers Alcatel and Ciena Corp., as well as Cisco Systems Inc. and Qualcomm Inc.

It is our hope to see this legislation come before the full House for a vote in the very near future, the letter read. As leaders in the high-technology industry, we are pleased that the committee rejected attempts to add so-called network neutrality provisions to the bill. We are opposed to the adoption of any such provisions at this time for a number of reasons.

The companies said the Internet has benefited from the absence of regulatory restrictions and that it is too early to enact net neutrality principles because the problem has not manifested itself in tangible form.

AT&T Inc. www.att.com
BellSouth Corp. www.bellsouth.com
COMPTEL www.comptel.org
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


 


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