House Panel Divided On Net Neutrality

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Washington—Key members of a House subcommittee were divided Tuesday on whether to pass a new law intended to police the management practices of broadband network owners.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) would require high-speed access providers, primarily cable and phone companies, to adhere to nondiscriminatory principles, while still managing their networks to combat spam, child pornography, illegally distributed movies, software and TV shows.

Markey (pictured) insisted his bill (HR 5353) contained only overarching principles and was not a license for the Federal Communications Commission to engage in heavy-handed regulation feared by his opponents.

“I think this is an eminently reasonable path to pursue,” said Markey, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, at the beginning of the first hearing on the bill since its Feb.12 introduction.

But many Republicans on the subcommittee questioned whether Markey's benign analysis of the bill was accurate.

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fl.) said the bill represented “a green light for the FCC to engage in rulemaking without further Congressional action.”

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) added: “This bill takes us down a dangerous path. The old axiom that ‘if it ain't broke, don't fix it’ applies here.”

Sharp division on Markey's subcommittee suggests that the bill would not become law this year. Passing 

net-neutrality legislation is just as controversial in the Senate.

Markey's three-hour hearing came as the FCC continues to investigate whether Comcast took improper action against consumers running the BitTorrent file sharing application.

Comcast has admitted to slowing down peer-to-peer uploads at peak times to relieve congestion harmful to the vast majority of its high-speed Internet customers. BitTorrent users can take up large amounts of bandwidth while downloading video files.

In August 2005, the FCC adopted consumer-centric Internet principles. At the time, Martin said they were not enforceable, but has since changed his mind. Comcast has told Martin that the agency does not have the authority to order the operator to stop targeting peer-to-peer traffic.

“It would be far better for Congress to pass this [Markey] bill and settle the question,” said Free Press policy director Ben Scott, who also testified on behalf of Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America.

In his testimony, National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow said steps taken today to manage peer-to-peer traffic won't “even be noticeable” to consumers. He added that Comcast is trying to develop less controversial bandwidth management techniques that don't target specific applications.

“The engineers are experimenting today and ought to be able to figure this out,” McSlarrow said.

Yet, several Democrats on Markey's panel indicated that the Comcast case and others involving AT&T and Verizon reinforced their view that the market forces will not yield an Internet environment hospitable to innovation.

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) said broadband network owners can manage their networks without targeting applications.

“I believe they can; that's net neutrality,” Doyle said. “The time has come for rules of the road.”

Doyle dismissed reliance on antitrust law to safeguard the Internet, claiming that litigation in this area would be long and costly. But Doyle's position puts him at odds with House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.), who does not favor support of prescriptive regulations from the FCC.

Markey's leading Republican supporter Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.), who is retiring at year-end, said he wanted to preserve principles of Internet openness first articulated by former Republican FCC chairman Michael Powell. Pickering also wants a case-by-case FCC review of allegations that the principles had been violated.

He said it was also important that the bill would codify the right owners to manage their networks.

“I do think it's the reasonable common ground,” Pickering said. “That's my purpose in joining chairman Markey on this legislation.”