Net neutrality proponents vow to press fight in Senate

After the U.S. House of Representatives approved a controversial telecommunications bill Thursday and rejected an amendment that sought to keep large telephone or cable TV companies from controlling access to the Internet, supporters of that “net neutrality” amendment vowed to fight on.

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

The measure adopted by the House, known as the Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act of 2006, is a broad telecommunications bill covering broadband, cable franchising, voice over IP and other Internet technologies, as well as the rules that govern them.

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

By ruling that broadband access shouldn’t be regulated under existing laws, broadband providers have carte blanche to charge more for higher levels of service and block Web sites and content they want to block, she said.

The coalition had wanted the House to approve a specially crafted net neutrality amendment to the bill, which included language to ensure fair access to the Internet without discrimination, Sohn said.

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

Sohn said the coalition, which includes Microsoft Corp., Google Inc., eBay Inc.,, Yahoo Inc. and other tech-related firms, will continue efforts to educate the public about the new telecom bill and its shortcomings. “The Senate bill has a very steep uphill climb,” she said. “The bill is a very different animal. Even if it [were to eventually] pass, getting it conferenced with the completed and different House bill would be a huge challenge. But there’s always next year.”

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

Jeannine Kenney, senior policy analyst for Yonkers, N.Y.-based Consumers Union, said that the “grass-roots campaign is only gaining steam” and that the telecommunications and cable companies still have a fight on their hands.

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

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

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