Stevens for Net Neutrality, in Theory

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A new telecommunications law will likely include “network-neutrality” provisions, but finding the right words is far from settled, Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said Tuesday after conducting a hearing that exposed division among committee members on the need to prevent cable- and phone-network owners from harming voice, video and content rivals.

“I do believe that net neutrality ought to be the basic principle of whatever legislation we pursue,” Stevens told reporters, saying that he hoped the committee would pass a bill in March.

The challenge, he added, was finding a consensus on defining net neutrality and codifying it in law.

“I can’t put it in words. I’m going to have to take a look at it in terms of how you define real neutrality. It’s sort of like defining a vacuum, isn’t it? It's not easy to do,” Stevens said.

The hearing gave leaders from search engine Google Inc. (www.google.com) and voice-over-Internet-protocol provider Vonage Holdings Corp. a forum to argue that cable and phone companies represented real threats, either though outright blocking or through demands for cash to guarantee service quality.

“Nothing less than the future of the Internet is at stake,” said Vinton Cerf, a recognized Internet pioneer who now works for Google under the title “chief Internet evangelist.”

National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow argued that companies like Google and Vonage were “so invested in the status quo that they fear not cable or telephone broadband providers, but the next idea, the next search engine that takes off.”

The big Web brands, he added, wanted Congress “to freeze the Internet in place, with their position in the marketplace locked in.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a hearing witness, said he would soon introduce a bill that would ban broadband providers from favoring content affiliates and from establishing “private networks” superior in quality to their conventional Internet-access services.

“In my view, there are powerful interests who own the pipes and access to the Net who are trying to break the Net,” Wyden said, adding that his bill would ensure that "no bit is better than another one.”

Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and George Allen (R-Va.) urged caution.

“My concern is that if we legislate prematurely, we will not let these different approaches play out in the marketplace,” Burns said.

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