First Net Neutrality Bill Hits Congress

Waiting just four days into the new 110th Congress, Senators Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) introduced legislation today to impose network neutrality conditions on broadband carriers.

The bill, known as the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, would prohibit broadband carriers from discriminatory practices such as pricing in handling traffic from Internet content, application and service providers.

The legislation would also require carriers to offer consumers individual broadband service that is not bundled with television or telephone service.

“The Internet became a robust engine of economic development by enabling anyone with a good idea to connect to consumers and compete on a level playing field,” Dorgan said in a joint statement with Snowe.

“The marketplace picked winners and losers, not some central gatekeeper. That freedom — the very core of what makes the Internet what it is today — must be preserved.”

The bill comes less than two weeks after AT&T pledged it wouldn’t prioritize Internet traffic over its platform for two years as a condition to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) approval of the $85 billion merger between AT&T and BellSouth.

The agreement does not apply to backbone network customers, major enterprise customers or AT&T’s plans to offer its own branded IPTV service.

AT&T and Verizon originally announced they planned to charge content providers extra fees to use their new fiber lines based on bandwidth consumption. The proposed business models created a legislative furor between the Republicans, who endorsed AT&T and Verizon’s plans, and the Democrats, who opposed the idea.

Both carriers rushed to condemn the legislation in e-mail statements to

AT&T Executive Vice President for Federal Relations Tim McKone insisted that the Dorgan-Snow legislation is unnecessary. McKone’s counterpart at Verizon, Peter Davidson, said the bill attempts to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

“It’s unfortunate that at a time when the U.S. ranks 11th behind South Korea in broadband deployment, precious time is being spent on legislation that will impede, not increase America’s standing,” McKone said. “We continue to believe that net neutrality regulations are unwarranted.”

Davidson predicted a tough legislative battle over the issue.

“We expect a robust debate. In the end, most policymakers will focus on how to increase broadband deployment, and wonder how net regulation advances that goal,” Davidson said.

Snowe disagreed.

“The tide has turned in the debate between those who seek to maintain equality and those who would benefit from the creation of a toll road on the Internet super highway,” Snowe said.

The bill is similar to an amendment introduced in the 109th Congress by Dorgan and Snowe.

The then majority Republicans on the Senate Commerce Committee rejected the legislation. Snowe was the sole Republican supporter of the bill. Since then, Democrats have gained control of both the U.S. Senate and House.

Other Democrats signing onto the new bill besides Dorgan include John Kerry of Massachusetts, California’s Barbara Boxer, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Vermont’s Patrick Leahy, New York’s Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama of Illinois.

“The reintroduction of this legislation and the FCC’s imposition of net neutrality conditions as part of the AT&T-BellSouth merger, are significant victories in the fight to ensure nondiscrimination on the Internet,” Snowe said.

While the bill mandates that broadband carriers must operate their networks in a nondiscriminatory manner, the carriers would still be free to manage their networks to protect security and to offer different tiers of service to consumers.

“This bill represents the appropriate next step following the net neutrality condition the FCC placed on AT&T’s merger with BellSouth,” Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America said in a statement. “The largest broadband provider in the country has committed to a clearly defined net neutrality condition.”

Ben Scott, policy director of the Internet free speech advocacy group Free Press, praised Dorgan and Snowe for introducing the legislation.

“Our elected officials now must act to keep the Internet free of gatekeepers who would destroy this revolutionary platform for free speech and economic innovation,” Scott said in his statement.

“The American public has an overwhelming interest in seeing this bill pass into law, ensuring that the online marketplace of ideas remains open and vibrant.”

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