Internet Firms Want FCC to Enforce Net Neutrality

By Arshad Mohammed
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Internet companies yesterday criticized legislation that would give the Federal Communications Commission only limited ability to stop phone and cable companies from blocking access to Web sites, saying the proposal would endanger the open nature of the Web.

The bill, championed by House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.), would allow the FCC to decide disputes about Web access only case by case and would bar the agency from writing detailed rules on the subject. Open-Internet advocates said the bill would make the FCC toothless in the area of net neutrality, which is the concept that companies controlling Internet access should not use that power to block or slow particular Web services.

"We are extremely concerned that legislation before your committee would fail to protect the Internet from discrimination and would deny consumers unfettered access," six companies wrote in a letter to Barton and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who is chairman of the panel's subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet.

"We have urged Congress to adopt network neutrality requirements that are meaningful and enforceable. The provisions in the committee bill achieve neither goal," the letter said on behalf of Inc., eBay Inc., Google Inc., IAC/InterActiveCorp, Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc.

As the major phone companies roll out high-speed data and video lines, some of them argue they should be able to charge such companies more to use their expensive networks.

The net-neutrality provisions are embedded in a broader bill whose main aim is to make it easier for phone companies to offer television service on new networks by freeing them from having to get video franchises from thousands of localities around the country.

The bill was released after months of negotiations failed to achieve a compromise between committee Republicans and senior Democrats John D. Dingell of Michigan and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts.

Only one Democrat, Rep. Bobby L. Rush of Illinois, endorsed the bill when it was made public Monday.

Independent analysts said it would be difficult to enact legislation on the issue this year, citing partisan differences, the absence of a consensus bill in the Senate and the short election-year congressional calendar.

Dingell raised questions about the legislation but kept his options open while Markey was openly critical.

"The 'network neutrality' section of the bill represents a body blow to the Internet community," Markey said. "It removes FCC authority to establish any future rules needed to ensure that consumers and competitors can avail themselves of the Internet experience they enjoy today."

A committee spokesman said the bill gave the FCC ample enforcement authority, including fines.

"The bill has more teeth than a pit bull, starting with full Title V enforcement authority for the FCC to investigate cases and slap violators with fines up to $25,000 a day," said Larry Neal, the committee's deputy staff director for communications.

"What it doesn't have is a blank check for bureaucrats to write so many regulations that they'll choke off brand-new services even before consumers try them out."

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