Tech groups urge Congress to keep net neutrality

More than 60 technology companies, consumer advocates and tradegroups are urging a U.S. House of Representatives committee toseriously consider legislation designed to prohibit broadbandproviders from discriminating against competing servicestransmitted over their networks.

Amid some press reports that the House Energy and Commercecommittee was ready to scrap so-called net neutrality provisionsfrom a broad-ranging communications bill, the groups sent a letterto the committee Wednesday. A committee spokesman said Thursday nodecisions have been made about what provisions will be included inthe communications bill.

The bill also includes a streamlined video franchise plan thatwould allow large telecommunications companies entering the videomarket to get quick approvals to offer service to compete withcable television.

“We … believe that unless Congress acts, the Internet is atrisk of losing the openness that has made it an engine forphenomenal social and economic growth,” the letter form the groupssays. “We are writing to urge that Congress take steps now topreserve this fundamental underpinning of the Internet and toassure the Internet remains a platform open to innovation andprogress.”

Among the companies signing the letter were Inc.,EarthLink Inc., eBay Inc.,, Microsoft Corp.,,TiVO Inc. and Yahoo Inc. Advocacy groups signing onto the letterincluded the Consumer Federation of America, Free Press and PublicKnowledge.

On Thursday, Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said hewould introduce a net neutrality law. Under Wyden’s bill, theInternet Nondiscrimination Act of 2006, network operators would beprohibited from charging companies for faster delivery of theircontent to consumers over the internet or favoring some contentover others.

Large broadband providers, including Verizon CommunicationsInc., Comcast Corp. and AT&T Inc., say a net neutrality lawisn’t needed, because there’s little evidence of a problem. Such alaw would prohibit broadband providers from providing preferentialtreatment to their own or their partners services and blocking orslowing access to competing services, such as an unaffiliated VOIP(voice over Internet Protocol) service.

DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) provider BellSouth Corp. hasproposed a business model where it charges Web sites and servicesan additional fee for better speed and performance, and most netneutrality backers say such a service would hurt small businessesand innovative startups. Officials from BellSouth, Verizon andAT&T have all, in recent months, complained that Web-basedbusinesses such as Google Inc. are getting a free ride over theirpipes.

Wyden’s bill would prohibit broadband providers from creating a”priority lane where content providers can buy quicker access tocustomers, while those who do not pay the fee are left in the slowlane,” Wyden’s office said in a press release.

“Creating a two-tiered system could have a chilling effect onsmall mom-and-pop businesses that can’t afford the priority lane,leaving these smaller businesses no hope of competing against theWal-Marts of the world,” Wyden said in a statement. “Neutrality intechnology enables small businesses to thrive on the Internet, andallows folks to start small and dream big, and that’s what I wantto protect with this legislation.”

An AT&T spokesman didn’t respond directly to Wyden’sbill, but he said AT&T will not block, impair or degradeservice to any legal Web site or service. “AT&T is simplypointing out the challenges related to an ever-evolving Internetwith proliferating applications that require significant networkbandwidth,” said Michael Balmoris, an AT&T spokesman. “Atthis stage, we are exploring different product models, but feelstrongly that this is an issue that has to be solved in themarketplace.”

Large broadband providers have also suggested that a netneutrality provision would be one of the first major regulations ofthe Internet.

The letter from the 64 groups said consumers, not networkproviders, should decide what Web sites and services they use.”While it is appropriate for Congress to develop new legislation topromote competition among broadband networks, it must also ensurethat consumers and providers continue to have the right to usethose networks to send and receive content, and to use applicationsand services, without interference by network operators,” theletter said.

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