Stevens Floats New Net-Neutrality Compromise

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Consumers could file complaints at the Federal Communications Commission if Internet-access providers blocked access to lawful Internet content, including voice, video or data applications, according to a new network-neutrality proposal backed by Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

In a third draft of a sweeping telecommunications bill, Stevens included a consumer-centric Internet Bill of Rights designed to assuage concerns of top committee Democrats, including Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who are concerned that without rigid nondiscrimination provisions, broadband access providers would use their market power to squeeze revenue from popular Web sites, such Google, Yahoo!, and eBay.

In a change favorable to cable, Stevens stripped from the bill language that would have forced Comcast Corp. to sell its Sports Net Philadelphia to DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp. Also gone are provisions allowing competitors to file FCC complaints to gain access to regional sports networks not owned by cable operator but to which a cable operator has exclusive rights.

The 159-page bill, a copy of which was obtained by Multichannel News over the weekend, was unchanged with regard to cable franchising: Phone companies may enter within 90 days and cable may opt in to the new regime when franchises expire or upon the entry of new cable provider.

Stevens' staff circulated the new draft on Friday in advance of the committee's vote on the bill (S. 2686) on Thursday. It was unclear whether Stevens has moved enough in the Democrats' direction on net neutrality to produce a bipartisan bill that would go a long way to ensuring easy passage on the Senate floor.

In his first two drafts, Stevens required the FCC to monitor the Internet markets and file annual reports for five years, an approach that Inouye called too timid. While Stevens agreed that more needed to be done in this area, he refused to include language intended to referee commercial disputes between Comcast and Verizon Communications Inc. on the one hand and Google and Yahoo! on the other.

The draft enumerated nine specific Internet rights. A subscribe may file an FCC complaint if he or she believed an ISP was in violation. The FCC would have 120 days to adjudicate a complaint, and may fine the ISP up to $10,000 per violation under $75,000 cap for continuing violations. The FCC may issue an injunction, but it may not enlarge or modify an ISP obligation through the adjudication process.

Stevens would allow ISPs -- the bill does not specifically refer to broadband access providers -- may manage their networks to combat worms, viruses, and spam, and to ensure privacy and network security. ISPs may block child pornography and other content authorize to be blocked. ISPs may provide parental controls and a family tier, though the latter was undefined. ISPs may block any content at the subscriber's request.

Under the bill, the FCC would still need to file annual reports with Congress on Internet market developments and make recommendations where appropriate. The bill would bar the FCC from promulgating any net neutrality regulations.

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