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By Caron Carlson  |  Posted 2006-05-01 Print this article Print

As Congress prepared to address the net neutrality controversy last week, the Coalition doubled in size.

"Everybody with a Web site on the Internet is a content provider," said Gigi Sohn, president of coalition member Public Knowledge, based in Washington. "There is, at best, a duopoly in broadband service. We would like a pro-competitive safeguard against the inevitability of a problem occurring."

The telephone companies insist they do not intend to block any legal content. In sworn testimony before the House Committee on the Judiciary April 25, Walter McCormick, head of the telcos main lobbying group, repeatedly said that premium service proposed under a tiered pricing plan is akin to special enterprise offerings such as VPNs, and it is not an effort to restrict content.

"We will not block, impair or degrade content, applications or services. If you can go there today on the Internet, you can go there tomorrow," said McCormick, president and CEO of the U.S. Telecom Association, also in Washington. "I dont think this is any different from what has historically been done in our networks."

Is it too late to save net neutrality? Read more here. However, the underlying concern is not about blocking, which would almost certainly raise the ire of policy-makers, but about the potential for subtler discrimination and for interfering with categories of traffic in ways that would be difficult to discern.

Calling the telcos plan for a two-tiered Internet "a Tony Soprano model of networking," Timothy Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, in New York, said it resembles a protectionist scheme.

"Degradation is the central issue here," Wu told the Judiciary Committee. "Their plans are to give favorable treatment to the companies they make deals with. The obvious point is that it distorts competition."

The net neutrality legislation, which the House Committee on Energy and Commerce approved April 26, is a small part of a telecom reform bill, the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006. The bill focuses mostly on requirements that telcos will face as they attempt to compete with cable companies in the residential video market.

The neutrality provision gives the Federal Communications Commission the authority to enforce a set of principles that the agency adopted last fall in a Statement of Policy on Internet Openness. The FCC could adjudicate complaints brought to it on a case-by-case basis, but it would be prohibited from issuing regulations to prevent discrimination.

The bills main sponsor, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said the measure "seeks to strike the right balance between ensuring that the public Internet remains an open, vibrant marketplace and ensuring that Congress does not hand the FCC a blank check to regulate Internet services."

Opponents say the bill will not preserve an open Internet because the FCC principles do not adequately address discrimination, and they do not prevent ISPs from charging fees that would be prohibitive for startups. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who failed in an attempt to amend the bill to prohibit two-tiered pricing, said the measure "will stifle openness, endanger our global competitiveness, and warp the Web into a tiered Internet of bandwidth haves and have-nots."

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