In a mostly partisan vote, Democrats on the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet lost a bid for rules that would require broadband providers to deliver traffic from like applications at like speeds.
Net neutrality is generally framed in terms of the consumers right to access any content with any device, but the controversial debate was ignited when executives of the Bell Operating Companies, AT&T and Verizon, expressed plans last year to charge large content providers a fee for premium delivery.
"I think this walled-garden approach that many network providers would like to create would fundamentally change the way the Internet works," said Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., adding that she fears the plan will discourage innovation.
Eshoo said, "There is essentially going to be a toll path on what is now an open freeway."
A bill that the subcommittee expects to vote on April 6 contains a Net neutrality provision that authorizes the Federal Communications Commission to hear complaints against network operators accused of violating a set of principles that the agency adopted last fall.
Under the bill, the FCC would have 90 days to resolve a complaint, and it could levy fines of up to $500,000 per violation.
Supporters of the bill said any further regulatory intervention could be detrimental to the ongoing development of the market. Calling the provision "a lot like Goldilocks and the Three Bears," subcommittee chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said the approach was "just right." Any additional regulation could have a chilling effect on the deployment of broadband, he said.
Several Democrats sought to amend the measure to allow the FCC to establish specific rules on network neutrality, arguing that the existing principles are vague and would allow broadband providers to impose a "bottleneck tax."
"This is an historic moment for the committee. Were about to break with the entire history of the Internet," said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who introduced an amendment with Eshoo and Reps. Rick Boucher, D-Va., and Jay Inslee, D-Wash., that would retain the nondiscriminatory nature of Internet content delivery.
Defending the bill, Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss., said it is too early to define Net neutrality in specific terms because the market continues to evolve.
"I do think this is a good first step. It may not be the last," Pickering said.
Opponents said that once the telephone companies establish a revenue stream from two-tiered delivery, it will be nearly impossible to outlaw it.
"To argue that we dont have to worry about this is kind of the Alfred E. Neuman approach," Inslee said. "We know this is coming. Weve been forewarned."