Senators re-introduce net neutrality bill

Two US senators have resurrected a debate over net neutrality in Congress by re-introducing legislation that would prohibit broadband providers from giving customers faster and more stable access to their own content than to competitors’ websites and services.

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Two US senators have resurrected a debate over net neutrality in Congress by re-introducing legislation that would prohibit broadband providers from giving customers faster and more stable access to their own content than to competitors’ websites and services.

Senators Byron Dorgan, a Democrat, and Olympia Snowe, a Republican, introduced the Internet Freedom Preservation Act today. The two first offered the net neutrality legislation in May 2006 and then tried to amend it to a wide-ranging broadband bill the following month but the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee failed to add the amendment to the larger bill.

Stand-alone net neutrality legislation failed to pass in Congress last year, with many of the majority Republicans opposed to it. Since then, Democrats have taken control of Congress, and net neutrality legislation may find a more friendly audience.

AT&T in December 2006 agreed to net neutrality rules for two years in exchange for federal approval of its acquisition of BellSouth http://www.bellsouth.com/. But net neutrality advocates said the concessions by the largest US telecom carrier doesn’t bind other large broadband providers to net neutrality rules.

“AT&T’s concessions expire in two years and they don’t apply to everyone else,” said Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America. “The point here is to make these [rules] permanent and industrywide.”

The Dorgan-Snowe bill would prohibit broadband providers from blocking, impairing or degrading legal internet content. It would require broadband providers to allow customers to attach any legal device to the network that does not degrade service, and it would require providers to notify customers of their speed of service and limitations on their network use.

Net neutrality advocates have called for a new law after 2005 decisions from US Federal Communications Commission and the US Supreme Court allowing broadband providers that own their networks to stop sharing the pipes with competitors. Net neutrality advocates fear that large broadband providers will now be able to slow or degrade content from competitors and they say most US residents have limited broadband options.

Broadband providers have opposed a net neutrality law, saying it would bring unneeded regulation to the internet. There have been few cases in which broadband providers have blocked or impaired competing content, they say, and they predict that more broadband competition will come in the near future.

Content discrimination would “fundamentally change the way the internet has operated and threatens to derail the democratic nature of the internet”, Dorgan said in a statement. “The internet became a robust engine of economic development by enabling anyone with a good idea to connect to consumers and compete on a level playing field. The marketplace picked winners and losers, not some central gatekeeper.”

Verizon Communications opposes the new legislation, the company said in a statement. Verizon supports customers’ “rights to full internet access”, but the bill would stifle broadband deployment, said Peter Davidson, Verizon’s senior vice-president for federal government relations.

“Net neutrality – better named net regulation – is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” Davidson said in a statement. “In the end, most policymakers will focus on how to increase broadband deployment, and wonder how net regulation advances that goal.”

Randolph May, president of conservative think tank The Free State Foundation, called the bill a “wrong-headed step backward” to heavy telecom regulation. The Dorgan-Snowe creates more regulations than the AT&T concessions, May said.

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