Senate Commerce Committee members reprised their battle over network neutrality legislation today at a hearing with FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and technology experts. Commerce Chairman Daniel Inouye lauded telecommunications companies’ recent steps to mitigate instances of blocking or filtering online activity, while Commerce ranking member Ted Stevens said that any anti-discrimination legislation is “entirely unwarranted” and could “interfere with the dynamics of this Internet and its future.” Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who chairs the Interstate Commerce, Trade and Tourism Subcommittee, and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, introduced a bill last year that would bar broadband providers from blocking, degrading or prioritizing content and applications on their networks. The debate over net neutrality raged in the 109th Congress as members wrangled with a broad telecommunications reauthorization bill, but it has gotten less attention this session.
“The creation and the development of the Internet is a remarkable thing in our lives and it occurred under rules of nondiscrimination,” Dorgan said. He noted the FCC adopted in 2005 four principles in support of Internet open access, which preceded AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre’s now infamous remark that Internet firms pay broadband providers for the portion of pipes they use. Martin reiterated his belief that the commission has the ability to adopt and enforce existing neutrality principles and no additional regulations are needed. He said the FCC is investigating one such alleged blocking instance involving Comcast. “You say you have the authority, but you may well not have the authority,” Dorgan countered, citing recent complaints and FCC filings.
Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., a critic of Dorgan’s bill, urged caution when “imposing legislation about what we think competitors will do in the future and how we think consumers will respond when competitors do things that we think they might do.” He added such laws would not be “the basis for sound regulation,” noting that if demonstrated anticompetitive practices emerge, regulatory action would be needed. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., cited “a lot of platitudes and politics” surrounding the net neutrality debate but said actual policy has received too little attention. Allegations of Comcast’s blocking; AT&T’s interference with the Web stream during a rock concert; and NARAL Pro-Choice America’s inability to send messages to supporters on Verizon Wireless’s platform signify a serious problem in need of a legislative fix, he said.
But Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., echoed Sununu’s sentiment, pointing out that in each instance of impropriety; network providers took swift action to correct the issue. Attempting to extend an olive branch to Dorgan, Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., offered to co-sponsor legislation with him that would codify the FCC’s Internet freedom principles. “That’s short of what we need to do but I’d be open to talk about that,” Dorgan said.
This article appears in the April 26, 2008, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.