House Judiciary Preps Neutrality Bill

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After losing a turf battle with the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the House Judiciary Committee is preparing legislation that would ban cable, phone and other broadband-access providers from demanding fees from Web-based entities in exchange for priority treatment of their services.

A House source said Wednesday that House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has refused to give the Judiciary Committee a period of time to amend a major communications bill (H.R. 5252) that passed by Energy and Commerce April 26 without a broad array of prescriptive "network-neutrality" regulations.

The Energy and Commerce Committee bill includes some safeguards for Web commerce sites, but network-neutrality advocates like Google Inc. (www.google.com), eBay Inc. (www.ebay.com), Yahoo! Inc. (www.yahoo.com) and Amazon.com Inc. (www.amazon.com) view them as insufficient to prevent discriminatory conduct.

In the wake of the speaker's ruling, Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) is planning to process his own bill that will address network neutrality from an antitrust-law perspective, which would likely mean Justice Department oversight of the industry rather than the Federal Communications Commission.

"Judiciary will initiate its own legislation," said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), a net-neutrality proponent with seat on both Energy and Commerce and Judiciary. "The draft is being put together as we speak."

Boucher added, "I am not at liberty to discuss the contents of it except that when it surfaces, I intend to be a co-sponsor. I am very involved in the drafting process."

Energy and Commerce shot down an amendment sponsored by Boucher and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) that would have banned broadband-access providers from discriminating in favor of their own content, from impairing consumer access to lawful content and from prioritizing data without doing the same for all similar kinds of data at no charge.

"Network neutrality is the core," Boucher said of the Judiciary bill, "and it will be the balance I have been looking for."

Major House and Senate bills do not directly impose network neutrality, mainly because key lawmakers were 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. H.R. 5252, sponsored by Energy and Commerce chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas), would empower the FCC to enforce its broadband principles of last August and impose $500,000 fines if necessary to resolve 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 backers want FCC involvement through agency rules, not through a complaint-driven process.

Barton's bill was expected on the House floor two weeks ago, but the clash with Judiciary delayed action. A House source said the Barton bill would not come up for a full House vote next week. The House will be out the week of May 29 for the Memorial Day recess.

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