May 31, 2006, 12:00 AM

New congressional efforts weigh into network neutrality issue

Although a provision to protect the open nature of the Internet was recently voted out of a telecommunications bill, H.R. 5252, in the U.S. House Committee on Commerce and Energy, the so-called “network neutrality” issue is far from dead.

The House and Senate judiciary committees are sounding off their concerns, the Federal Trade Commission wants to get more directly involved, and new, stronger legislation written to protect network neutrality is in the works in the Senate. “Everybody’s fighting for a piece of the network neutrality pie,” says Bill McClellan, director of government affairs for trade group the Electronic Retailing Association.

Proponents of network neutrality are pushing for federal legislation that would prevent AT&T; Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and other telecommunications companies from acting on their stated interest to charge fees to retailers and other Internet content providers for access to premium, high-speed Internet services.

The telcos see the fees as a way for them to raise the funds necessary to keep improving the Internet. But the ERA and others contend that such a fee-based system would grant the telcos too much control over the Internet and stifle the growth of e-commerce (see “Tug of War,” May 2006, p. 36).

Following are some of the latest developments in Washington related to network neutrality:

l The House Judiciary Committee has asked for permission from the Speaker of the House to review H.R. 5252, the “Communications Opportunity, Promotions and Enhancement Act of 2006,” before it goes to a full House vote. The Judiciary Committee said it wants to review the bill’s implications for network neutrality and will submit its own bill regarding the issue if not granted permission to review H.R. 5252.

l The Senate Judiciary Committee has expressed interest in reviewing a telecommunications bill submitted by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) for its implications on network neutrality. Among their concerns are how well the bill addresses Internet right-of-way and anti-trust issues.

l The involvement of the two judiciary committees has more Republicans as well as Democrats expressing concerns about the loss of network neutrality, making it more of a bipartisan issue, McClellan says.

l Senators Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) have produced a working draft of legislation, the “Internet Neutrality Act,” that strongly supports network neutrality and in late May was about to be submitted.

l The Federal Trade Commission, in communication with the House Judiciary Committee, has asserted it is prepared to exercise its jurisdiction over Internet access services to assure fair trade policies. This is expected to fill in a gap in government oversight of telecommunications practices left by recent actions that have weakened the role of the Federal Communications Commission regarding usage of the Internet, McClellan says.

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