Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Net neutrality debate still simmers

Net neutrality debate still simmers
By Anne Broache, CNET

WASHINGTON--Verizon Communications' top lobbyist on Tuesday said the tussle over Net neutrality laws may be the "oddest" Capitol Hill debate that he's ever experienced.

The feud over whether to prohibit network operators from making deals to prioritize certain Internet content is puzzling because it "amounts to holding a congressional vote on hypothetical business plans," Thomas Tauke, Verizon's executive vice president for public affairs, policy and communications, said in a luncheon speech here organized by the nonprofit Media Institute.

"For consumers and the country, government regulation of this developing market is a lose-lose proposition," he said.

Tauke's appearance came as the fate of extensive Net neutrality mandates in Congress remains uncertain.

On June 28, the Senate Commerce Committee narrowly rejected, by an 11-11 vote that fell mostly along party lines, an amendment to a sweeping communications bill that would have forced network operators to adhere to nondiscrimination rules sought by Internet companies such as Google and

Since then, Democrats such as Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden have vowed to block that bill's passage by the full Senate unless stricter rules are added. A Senate Commerce Committee aide said Tuesday that such a vote would not occur before September.

The version of the bill approved last month would require network operators to adhere to an "Internet consumer bill of rights," which would generally bar them from interfering with their subscribers' ability to access lawful sites, applications and services, connect legal devices to the network, and post content of their choosing. The House of Representatives took a similar approach with its own version, which cleared in June.

But Internet content companies and hundreds of organizations, ranging from to the Christian Coalition, charge that such guidelines don't go far enough. They argue that if Congress doesn't outlaw the business models described by Verizon and AT&T executives, then consumers will have to contend with Internet "gatekeepers" for the first time in history. As a result, they may encounter higher costs and fewer choices, as garage start-ups struggle to cough up the priority fees they need to compete with wealthier enterprises.

Since the close vote last month, supporters of more comprehensive Net neutrality regulations have taken to poking fun at remarks made by Committee Chairman Ted Stevens during the latest round of debate.

"The Internet is not something you just dump something on," the audibly irritated Alaska Republican said while attempting to defend his bill's approach. "It's not a truck. It's a series of tubes."

His comments, which have circulated widely through the blogosphere, have since inspired a mock slideshow depicting such a scenario, a silk-screened T-shirt design, and a techno song (click for MP3).

On a more serious note, Google Vice President Vint Cerf said last week that if Congress doesn't approve strong anti-discrimination rules, Internet content companies won't be afraid to take their case to the U.S. Department of Justice's antitrust police.

The mandates sought by Google and others would actually have a negative impact on consumers and broadband prices by stifling network operators' quest to recoup the billions of dollars they've invested in new pipes, particularly as they widen their video offerings, Tauke argued on Tuesday.

"If government policies reduce the opportunity to earn a return on that investment," he said, "network operators won't have a choice: They simply won't be able to deploy them."