RealTime IT News

House Judiciary Approves Net Neutrality

WASHINGTON -- Net Neutrality finally won a vote today.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 20-13 to turn the issue into an antitrust matter after months of it being dismissed as a matter for further Federal Communications Commission (FCC) study.

In doing so, broadband network operators such as AT&T and Verizon would be barred from charging extra fees to run content at the same speed and quality of the network owner's own content.

"While the technological dynamics of the telecom marketplace have changed over time, the threat of dominant firms abusing their market power to restrain competition and consumer choice has not," Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner said.

The Wisconsin Republican noted that telephone and cable companies control more than 98 percent of the broadband connections in the United States.

"The lack of competition in the broadband marketplace presents a clear incentive for providers to leverage dominant market power over the broadband bottleneck," Sensenbrenner said. "An antitrust remedy is clearly needed."

The Judiciary bill -- the Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act -- is in stark contrast to legislation approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee in April.

Under that bill, the FCC would handle issues of network neutrality.

"The Energy and Commerce Committee vests exclusive authority [over network neutrality] to the FCC," Sensenbrenner said. "Who do you want deciding these issues? Judges or politically appointed members of the FCC?"

The differences between the two bills underscore a long-standing jurisdictional battle between the two panels.

The Republican House leadership will now have to decide which bill or what parts of each bill will be included in the final legislation presented to the entire House.

A House vote on telecom reform, which contains network neutrality language, is expected sometime this summer.

"This bill is a regulator's dream, an innovator's nightmare," Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said, reflecting the opinion of the majority of the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee.

"This is proscriptive rules for a speculative problem," he added.

In the final vote, six Republicans joined 14 Democrats to ensure passage of the bill. Thirteen Republicans opposed the legislation.

Even some Democrats on the panel expressed concern over the bill but ultimately voted for the legislation based on jurisdictional grounds.

"I think this bill is a blunt instrument, but is important to return Justice Department jurisdiction over the issue," Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) added, "I disagree with the Energy and Commerce approach and this bill is the best signal we can send."

Proponents of net neutrality, a loose coalition of tech companies and grassroots organizations, rushed to praise the legislation.

"Today's vote would have been unthinkable three weeks ago," Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, the nonpartisan media reform group that coordinates the SavetheInternet.com Coalition, said in a statement.

"It shows that the politicians are listening to the vast number of citizens who don't want the Internet to become the private domain of the cable and telephone monopolies."

Earl Comstock, president and CEO of COMPTEL, a trade group of independent communications service providers, added in a statement, "Chairman Sensenbrenner's bill makes very clear that actions by the Bell companies and cable operators, or any other network owner, to discriminate against competitors would violate federal antitrust laws."

AT&T issued its own statement focused on the Republicans who voted against the bill.

"While we are disappointed that the Judiciary Committee chose to move toward regulating the Internet, we are pleased that the majority of the majority recognized that this legislation would deter investment in our nation's broadband infrastructure," said Tim McKone, AT&T executive vice president of federal relations.

McKone also hit on a repeated theme of the broadband providers that legislation simply isn't necessary since there is no real evidence of discrimination by network operators.

"We are optimistic that the majority in Congress will see this legislation as an attempt to solve a problem that does not exist and will instead focus on bringing choice to consumers by passing video choice legislation," he said.