Policy

WWJD About Network Neutrality?

5/17/2006 5:10 PM Eastern

The Christian Coalition is calling on its members to support legislation that would ban broadband-access providers from taking discriminatory actions against Web-based providers of products, information and applications.

In a press release Wednesday, Christian Coalition president Roberta Combs urged Congress to pass a bill that would impose so-called network-neutrality regulations on cable, phone and other broadband-access providers.

Although Combs did not endorse a particular bill pending in the House or Senate, she said legislation is needed to ensure that broadband-network owners do not squelch Web-based content with which they disagree.

“What if a cable company with a pro-choice board of directors decides that it doesn't like a pro-life organization using its high-speed network to encourage pro-life activities?” Combs said. “Under the new rules, they could slow down the pro-life Web site, harming their ability to communicate with other pro-lifers -- and it would be legal.”

“The new rules” she mentioned refer to Federal Communications Commission policies that treat providers of broadband access as unregulated information-service providers. Combs noted that until last year, the FCC regulated phone companies that offer digital-subscriber-line service as common carriers, which are not allowed to discriminate among users of the their networks.

On its Web site (www.cc.org), the Christian Coalition described itself as “the largest and most active conservative grassroots political organization in America.” The group is well-know for its influential voter guides that are distributed to millions of potential voters during presidential primary season.

The Christian Coalition's advocacy is another sign that the network-neutrality issue has escaped the lawyer-driven world of communications policy and found a home in the broader political dialogue.

Groups in support of network neutrality formed a coalition that includes left-wing advocacy groups, commercial Web sites with multibillion-dollar market capitalizations and, increasingly, advocacy groups on the political right.

The Bush administration -- which is advocating policies designed to promote rapid and ubiquitous deployment of broadband -- has not been participating in the debate.

Major bills in the House and Senate do not directly impose the kinds of restrictions that the Christian Coalition wants to see apply to cable and phone companies, mainly because lawmakers are concerned about the impact of such regulations on broadband-network investment.

A Senate bill (S. 2686) sponsored by Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) would require the FCC to study Internet commercial arrangements and prepare annual reports. A House bill (H.R. 5252) sponsored by Energy and Commerce chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) would empower the FCC to enforce its broadband principles and impose $500,000 fines after reviewing complaints.

But Barton's bill would not allow the FCC to create rules aimed at controlling the business practices of broadband-access providers. Network-neutrality advocates want FCC rules that would ban broadband-access providers from creating "fast lanes" for which Web sites would have to pay fees to use.

“Major telecom companies are laying plans to create tiered access to the Internet -- and to charge extra fees to consumers and content providers in order to offer select Web sites for ‘fast access’ by consumers,” Combs said. "The Internet is what it is today because every site, no matter how obscure, is just as accessible to every individual as any name brand site with a multimillion-dollar budget."

In a letter sent to all senators Wednesday, conservative Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) voiced their opposition to network-neutrality rules and claimed that “some online-content providers have used fear and misinformation” on the subject.

Network-neutrality regulation “would penalize broadband-access providers for making major improvements to the Internet and would reward online-content providers who demand regulation in order to tip the scales of Internet competition in their favor,” the lawmakers said.

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