Net neutrality fight just beginning

After the U.S. House approved a controversial telco bill andrejected an amendment that sought to keep large telephone or cableTV companies from controlling access to the Internet, supporters ofthat “net neutrality” amendment vowed to fight on.

In a conference call Friday, leaders of nine businesses andpublic policy groups in the nascent It’s Our Net Coalition saidthey weren’t surprised by the House vote and will now concentrateon the Senate version of the bill.

The measure adopted by the House, known as the CommunicationsOpportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act of 2006, is a broadtelecommunications bill covering broadband, cable franchising,voice over IP and other Internet technologies, as well as the rulesthat govern them.

The issue, said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, isthat since the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and the U.S.Supreme Court ruled last year that broadband services don’t fallunder traditional communications regulatory policies, no one islooking out for businesses and consumers that use the Internet.Public Knowledge is a Washington-based public interest advocacygroup that studies technology, copyright and broadband policy.

By ruling that broadband access shouldn’t be regulated underexisting laws, broadband providers have carte blanche to chargemore for higher levels of service and block Web sites and contentthey want to block, she said.

The coalition had wanted the House to approve a speciallycrafted net neutrality amendment to the bill, which includedlanguage to ensure fair access to the Internet withoutdiscrimination, Sohn said.

The larger bill passed by a vote of 321 to 101, while theamendment failed 269 to 152.

Sohn said the coalition, which includes Microsoft Corp., GoogleInc., eBay Inc.,, Yahoo Inc. and other tech-relatedfirms, will continue efforts to educate the public about the newtelecom bill and its shortcomings. “The Senate bill has a verysteep uphill climb,” she said. “The bill is a very differentanimal. Even if it [were to eventually] pass, getting itconferenced with the completed and different House bill would be ahuge challenge. But there’s always next year.”

Alan Davidson, Washington counsel for Google, said during thecall that the House vote should be taken as “a wake-up call” by thepublic and businesses about how the Internet could be regulated inthe future. “As more consumers and small businesses learn aboutthis, I think we’ll see more concern,” he said.

Jeannine Kenney, senior policy analyst for Yonkers, N.Y.-basedConsumers Union, said that the “grass-roots campaign is onlygaining steam” and that the telecommunications and cable companiesstill have a fight on their hands.

“I think that in the Senate there is a better understanding ofthe idea of net neutrality,” although many members are still on thefence on the issue, she said.

The Senate version of the telecom bill is still in draft formbut a new draft is expected soon, Sohn said.

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