Senate to Tackle Net Neutrality This Week

WASHINGTON D.C – Lawmakers are slated to hold a hearing Tuesday to examine some of the major issues that lie in the nebulous crossroads of technology and government.

With the ambitious title “The Future of the Internet,” the hearing before the full Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, will consider the broad themes of “developing applications, consumer expectations and network operation.”

While an official list of witnesses has not been released yet, the likely participants indicate that the hearing will focus heavily on the issue of Internet neutrality, a hot-button policy debate that the Federal Communications Commission has been considering with its own series of hearings. The most recent FCC hearing was last Thursday at Stanford University.

The debate over Net neutrality turns on whether the government needs to legislate or regulate policies over how Internet service providers manage their networks. Many Web companies and public interest groups are concerned that allowing ISPs to manage traffic free from government oversight could lead down a slippery slope where network operators will give preferential treatment to their own services, or those that make side deals with the providers for faster delivery. Industry groups have countered that government oversight would only stifle broadband deployment, and that self-regulation has allowed the Internet to flourish.

An aide for Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) told InternetNews.com that the unofficial witness list for Tuesday’s hearing includes Stanford professor Lawrence Lessig, an outspoken advocate of Net neutrality legislation, and Kyle McSlarrow, president and CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. Industry representatives were invited, but none appeared at Thursday’s FCC meeting at Stanford.

Other likely witnesses are representatives of some of the diverse groups who are becoming increasingly interested in the Net neutrality debate. These include the Christian Coalition, the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild, who is believed to be dispatching actress Justine Bateman, a board member of the guild, to testify.

Compensation for online content

For the entertainment industry, the debate reopens the issue that was at the heart of the recent writers’ strike: compensation and distribution of online content.

Dan Glickman, chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, has already declared his opposition to Net neutrality legislation, warning that it would lead to rampant piracy by giving open license to peer-to-peer file-sharing sites.

But some content producers are growing concerned that a non-neutral Internet could lead to network operators brokering sweetheart deals with entertainment companies to choke off distribution of rival artists.

The issue was been showcased recently by Comcast’s controversial throttling of traffic on the peer-to-peer site BitTorrent, which sparked loud protests from consumer advocacy groups. (Comcast has since made its traffic shaping policy public).

Legislative efforts in both branches to codify Net neutrality have stalled. After his first attempt was shot down in June 2006, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced a milder version of Net neutrality legislation in February with the Internet Freedom Preservation Act.

In the Senate, Snowe and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) introduced a more forceful bill last January, but it has sat in committee since. Snowe is hoping that this Tuesday’s hearing will help reinvigorate the issue.

“It’s certainly still a priority, and I think that given the instances that have occurred last year, that certainly refocuses the tension on the issue,” Snowe’s aide said.

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Leading the charge for legislation is the public interest group Free Press, which heads the umbrella organization SaveTheInternet.com. Craig Aaron, communications director for Free Press, is hopeful that the recent evidence of preferential network management from ISPs such as Comcast and AT&T has set the stage for the Dorgan/Snowe bill to begin moving through the Senate.

“Since the bill was reintroduced early in this Congress, things have become a lot clearer,” Craig Aaron, communications director for Free Press told InternetNews.com “We used to face the argument that Net neutrality is a solution in search of a problem. Well, now we’ve found the problem.”

A long, uncertain road

Any form of Net neutrality legislation faces a long and uncertain road. The Senate bill is assured of a contentious markup process before it has a chance to emerge from committee. Then, garnering the 60 votes required to pass is a very real challenge, given that Snowe is the lone Republican co-sponsor of a bill along with Dorgan and several other Democrats.

Markey’s bill in the House is a different version, which means that if both were to pass, the two chambers would have to agree on a common final format, which would then return to the respective floors for another vote.

Nevertheless, with discontent still simmering over the Comcast/BitTorrent flap, some lawmakers are ready to renew the fight in Congress. Blogging on the site firedoglake.com on Friday, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) promised that Net neutrality would play a big part in Tuesday’s hearing, and sought to defuse the industry’s argument that regulation would put unnecessary restraints on a fast-growing economy.

“Look, this doesn’t mean we’re going to apply a prescriptive, heavy-handed bureaucratic approach to how network providers are permitted to serve subscribers,” Kerry wrote. “But we need to insist on basic fairness and an open, content-neutral approach to how users can access the backbone of our telecommunications system.”

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