Conyers Unveils Net Neutrality Bill With Antitrust Focus

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Washington—The future of net neutrality legislation in the House grew more complicated Thursday as House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced an antitrust bill designed to discipline broadband network owners that misbehave.

Conyers' move sets up a possible clash with Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who wants to pass a bill that would authorize the Federal Communications Commission to monitor the openness of broadband networks and the nondiscriminatory management practices of network owners.

Markey, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, had a hearing on his bill, the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008 (H.R. 5353), on Tuesday. Markey's panel is sharply divided along party lines on the need for such legislation.

On more than one occasion, Conyers has spoken out against relying on prescriptive FCC rules and regulations to referee the tug of war going on between network owners and bandwidth hogs that upload and download large video files using peer-to-peer applications.

Conyers introduced his bill, "Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act of 2008" (H.R. 5994), with Rep. Zoe Lofgen (R-Ca.). Typically, a law with an antitrust remedy provides for injunctive relief, attorneys' fees and treble damages.

"The Internet was designed without centralized control, without gatekeepers for content and services. If we allow companies with monopoly or duopoly power to control how the Internet operates, network providers could have the power to choose what content is available," Conyers said in the statement.

Some net neutrality advocates favor the FCC as watchdog, claiming that antitrust suits can be long and costly.

In her statement, Lofgren suggested that the penalties in the bill could be sufficient to ensure that broadband network owners didn't cross the line.

"We need a meaningful remedy to prevent those who control the infrastructure of the Internet from controlling the content on the Internet. This legislation will help guarantee that the innovative spirit of the Internet is not trampled," Lofgren said.

Cable and phone companies, the leading providers of residential broadband access, have argued that no legislation is needed.

Cable leaders like Comcast Corp. claim that they need to manage their networks to prevent a minority of high-volume users from degrading service for the vast majority of customers, and that they are not blocking access to Web sites or use of applications.

In 2006, the House Judiciary Committee, then under Republican control, passed an antitrust neutrality bill that the majority of Republicans on the panel opposed. The bill's sponsor, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), was denied the opportunity to debate the measure on House floor.

Meanwhile, House GOP leaders gave Markey the go-ahead to offer his net neutrality amendment, which was defeated.