'Net neutrality' provision to block Internet fast lane defeated in US House

Washington (DC) - A provision that would have amended legislation under consideration in the US House of Representatives, making it illegal for Internet service providers to offer different tiers of service to selected groups of customers - informally called the net neutrality provision - was defeated, with a 269-152 vote to kill debate on the measure. While opponents of an "Internet fast lane" are claiming defeat, the amendment's language, some argued, may actually have been designed as a "poison pill" for the legislation it was amending, and thus might not have passed a final vote even if it performed as planned.

Last March, an amendment to pending Internet communications regulation legislation was offered before Congress by Sen. Ron Wyden (D - Oregon), which would prohibit Internet service providers from discriminating between different types of traffic - for instance, offering express services to selected content carriers, and relegating lesser quality of service to smaller carriers. Soon afterward - and probably not by accident - Rep. Joe Barton (R - Texas) invoked US House rules to withdraw an existing regulatory bill from consideration, putting in its place a new bill which would pave the way for nationwide - rather than regional - Internet service licensees.

The Barton Bill, formally known as the Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act (COPE), would offer a kind of olive branch to incumbent ISPs - which, in a nation where dial-up service is almost dead and a major chunk of broadband is provided through locally franchised television service providers, would have opposed a measure to open up competition to national franchises. This olive branch would have allowed incumbents and others to offer "premium services" to selected Internet content providers, using a model very similar to that in cable TV, with premium and basic channels. Immediately, opponents characterized this measure as an opportunity for ISPs to reap new revenue channels from major content providers like Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google.

So to try to place itself on the more popular side of the issue, Google came out against the legislation and for the net neutrality provision. In an open letter to users, Google CEO Eric Schmidt urged them to write their congressperson to show their support for net neutrality. "The phone and cable monopolies, who control almost all Internet access," Schmidt wrote, "want the power to choose who gets access to high-speed lanes and whose content gets seen first and fastest. They want to build a two-tiered system and block the on-ramps for those who can't pay."

Supporters of net neutrality have rallied behind the cause of free and open competition. Ironically, opponents of net neutrality rallied behind the cause of free and open competition, coupled with a dose of free enterprise in the Ronald Reagan vein.

"The Internet Freedom Coalition believes that the Internet has become a powerful communications and economic force," writes this Coalition in response to this morning's vote, "because it has been free from government interference. We are very pleased that the U.S. House of Representatives last night overwhelmingly voted to protect Internet freedom by rejecting an attempt to regulate the Internet with 'Net Neutrality' regulations. We urge the Senate to act in a similar fashion as they consider legislation to deregulate video services."

Other industry groups characterized the Wyden amendment as an affront to Americans' free right to shop. "As representatives of 15.6 million women business owners across the country," wrote Barbara Kasoff, president of Women Impacting Public Policy, "we believe this reform will be a boon to women and minority-owned businesses that want to be able to shop among multiple carriers for the best price in Internet and video services. In addition to lowering prices for consumers, competition will give companies the incentive to invest in new technology and update their broadband networks to better serve customers."

What for one group is a blow against discrimination is, for another, a boon for discrimination. "It is a shame that the House turned its back on the open essence of the Internet," wrote Gigi B. Sohn, president of the advocacy group Public Knowledge. "Instead, the House ignored the arguments of consumers, technology companies and interest groups from across the political spectrum and voted to allow the telephone and cable companies to discriminate by controlling the content that will flow over the network and to assess whatever additional fees the telephone and cable companies want to charge on top of normal access rates."

It is nowhere near the end of net neutrality as we know it, nor the end of the Internet fast lane. In the modern legislative environment, measures - especially amendments, more often than bills - are written with the original intent of their being defeated, in order that the legislators who voted in favor of that defeat will be on record. 2006 is an election year, and phrases proclaiming that certain congresspeople voted "against net neutrality and in favor of the Internet fat cats" will likely proliferate the airwaves in the coming months.