Telecommunications industry groups have attacked a new bill calling for government regulators to take a closer look at how broadband providers manage their networks.
The Internet Freedom Preservation Act, introduced earlier this week by Rep. Ed Markey, the Democratic chairman of the House subcommittee on telecommunication and the Internet, could make it illegal for service providers to block or degrade traffic on their networks.
Its introduction revisits the contentious debate over Net neutrality, which has industry groups championing the free market and warning that government intervention threatens to choke off growth and innovation in the Internet economy.
[cob:Related_Articles]”The market-based approach has made the Internet what it is today,” Joe Ferren, a spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), told InternetNews.com.
“Should the federal government decide what the Internet looks like — or should the free market? Ferren said. “To date, it’s been the free market, and it’s been a smashing success.”
The USTelecom Association also condemned the bill, calling it “antithetical” to the goals of promoting innovation and extending broadband deployment.
“It would blindly legislate a new national broadband policy, without regard to its implications,” Walter McCormick, USTelecom’s president and CEO, said in a statement.
Markey shrugged off concerns that the bill would hamper the activities of Internet companies. “There are some who may wish to assert that this bill regulates the Internet,” he said in a statement.
“It does no such thing,” Markey added. “The bill contains no requirements for Internet regulation whatsoever.”
However, the new legislation, co-sponsored by Chip Pickering (R-Miss.), aims to draft a broadband policy that would preserve the “open architecture” of the Internet, assuring that “content providers not be subjected to unreasonably discriminatory practices by broadband network providers.”
To the opponents, that sounds an awful lot like regulating the Internet. Groups like USTelecom, CTIA and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association claim that the market forces are working.
Between cable, DSL and wireless services, consumers have enough choice among broadband companies that if one began managing its network in a way that unfairly restricted Internet access, they could switch providers.
According to Ferren, no evidence of any widespread implementation of preferential network management is evident. “If it became common practice the other side of the debate would have a credible argument,” he said.
One of the loudest voices on the other side that debate is Free Press, a Washington, D.C.-based public advocacy group.
In November, Free Press and other groups under the umbrella organization SavetheInternet.com petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to take action against Comcast for throttling downloads from peer-to-peer site BitTorrent.
[cob:Special_Report]In its comments filed with the FCC, Comcast claimed that its traffic management policies, including how it handles peer-to-peer protocols, are a necessary mechanism to ensure reliable performance for all its customers.
A Comcast spokeswoman declined to comment on the Markey bill but said that the company’s position on government broadband regulation can be found in its FCC filing.
Free Press has shot back in its own FCC filing that Comcast’s claim of “reasonable network management” masks an anticompetitive tactic to stifle BitTorrent and other applications that threaten its video services.
Predictably, Free Press and the SavetheInternet.com Coalition also praised Markey’s bill.
“The introduction of this legislation gives hope to the millions of Americans who want the public — not phone and cable companies — in control of the Internet,” Free Press campaign director Timothy Karr said in a statement.
The Open Internet Coalition, an umbrella group that counts Web giants such as Google and eBay as members, also released a statement praising the bill
[cob:Pull_Quote]In the new legislation, Markey called on the FCC to hold eight broadband summits to determine whether companies are managing their networks in a way that is unfair to consumers and to report back to Congress.
Markey’s new bill backs off considerably from his earlier attempt to codify Net neutrality, which Republicans shot down in June 2006. Markey’s previous effort would have blocked broadband providers from introducing a tiered pricing structure that would charge customers a premium for higher-bandwidth service.
Net neutrality legislation has seen a similar trajectory in the Senate, where language amending a telecom bill to guarantee nondiscriminatory Internet service was thrown out shortly after Markey’s original bill was defeated in the House. Olympia Snow (R-Maine) reintroduced a Net neutrality bill in January 2007, but it has languished since.