Groups Protest Lack of Net Neutrality in New Bill

A new telecommunications reform bill in the U.S. Congress would kill the Internet because it does not protect users against decisions by broadband providers to discriminate against some types of Internet traffic, consumer advocacy groups said Tuesday.

The draft bill, released late Monday by the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, would gut so-called net neutrality rules prohibiting large broadband providers from blocking or slowing access to Web content and services from competitors, the advocates said. The House committee included net neutrality provisions in earlier drafts.

"This really is a gigantic step backwards, and if enacted, would lead to the death of the Internet," said Earl Comstock, president and chief executive officer of CompTel, a trade group representing small telecom carriers.

The bill would give large DSL and cable modem providers "a blank check" to freeze out companies that provide competing Web content and services such as voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), added Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, during a press conference.

DSL providers AT&T and Verizon Communications praised the bill, released by committee Chairman Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, and Rep. Bobby Rush, an Illinois Democrat. Neither company addressed net neutrality in statements it released, instead focusing on provisions in the bill that would streamline the franchising process for new video carriers to compete with cable television. Both companies are rolling out IPTV services that deliver cable-like programming over the Internet.

Barton defended the bill in a statement, saying it will produce an "explosion of opportunity" with video services "that were unimagined just a few years ago." Current telecom law does not reflect the "technological and competitive reality" of video, he added.

Consumer groups and companies such as Amazon.com, Microsoft and Yahoo have called for a net neutrality law in recent years, with their efforts accelerated after the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in August ruled that DSL providers don’t have to share their networks with competitors.

Cable modem service providers have long been exempt from sharing their networks, and net neutrality advocates say large broadband providers now have little incentive to provide competitors with the same level of service they provide to their own or their partners’ products.

AT&T and Verizon have said they have no intention of blocking or slowing access to some Web products because preferential treatment could annoy customers.

The new draft bill would eliminate old language prohibiting broadband providers from blocking or impairing access to Web content, services and devices. It would give the FCC power to investigate complaints of violations of its own net neutrality policy statement, saying consumers are "entitled" to view the Web content, run Web applications and attach network devices. The bill would also prohibit the FCC from creating new net neutrality rules.

Those rules give the FCC little power to stop broadband providers from discriminating against Web content and applications, said eight advocacy groups, including Public Knowledge, Internet2 and Free Press.

"This legislation ties the FCC’s hands, thereby undermining the promise of the Internet as a vehicle for innovation and democratic networks," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president and chief executive officer of the Media Access Project, a nonprofit law firm working for free expression online.

-Grant Gross, IDG News Service

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