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Commerce Debates Network Neutrality

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced his network neutrality amendment Wednesday, which would explicitly prevent discrimination in the provision of Internet service. He argued that without the amendment, the House Commerce Committee's national video franchising bill would spell the "end of the Internet as we know it."

"This is the moment," said Markey.

Although Markey described the issue as not Democrat of Republican, debate divided pretty much along party lines, with a few exceptions.

Democrats, generally, opined that without the amendment, the Internet would fundamentally and detrimentally change, as Markey has put it, with the other side arguing that the bill already gives the FCC power to adjudicate violations of network neutrality principles, and that those are enough given that it is unclear even what network neutrality is.

Janice Schakowsky (D-Ill.) backed Markey, saying the vote on his amendment could be the most important one the committee makes regarding the Internet, warning that those who voted it down "could end up being on the wrong side of history," and regret their vote.

The concerns of Markey, Schakowsky and other Democrats includes e-mails from activist groups being blocked, Internet innovators being stifled, and "protection" money being extorted from companies to be on the so-called Internet "fast-lane."

Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) whose constituents include a lot of Internet and computer companies, said there is "a prairie fire" out there, with millions concerned that the committee is not protecting the freedom of the 'net. "Go on line and read what they are saying," she told her colleagues.

One Republican supporting the amendment was Heather Wilson (R-N.M.). She conceded that there was some justification for "prioritizing" content, but that it should not be based on someone paying a fee. The telephone companies want to set up virtual private networks for companies, like Disney, that might pay for the extra bandwidth and security to deliver big pipe services like video.

Rick Boucher (D-Va co-sponsored the amendment. He said that degradation of service is certain to occur. The telcos, he said, have clearly stated a business plan to discriminate in service, providing a two-lane highway, one faster for those who pay more, and the other for everyone else. What will the effect of that "relegation to the slow lane" have on innovation he said. The argument is that start-ups can't afford the fast lane, and will be handicapped if relegated to the slow.

Boucher said that history shows that it won't work to wait for the abuse, then pursue it, as the model of FCC adjudication sets up. This is the time that we need to set the rules, which he said are essentially just for the status quo.

Speaking against the amendment was John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who said noone has been able to define network neutrality and that whatever it is, the FCC, in the bill, is given the authority to determine that and punish violators. Charles Gonzalez (D-Tex.) agreed there will be an outcry from people who think we are

taxing the Internet. "That is not what we are doing," he said. We have people saying: 'Don't spread the cost because it affects what I do.'" Allowing telcos to charge more for faster service, he said, may just be a way to spread out the cost of building their networks. "I think the bill is keeping up with the Internet's evolution and its different players," he said.

Democrat Gene Green of Texas was another who opposed the Markey amendment. He said it went too far and that without it, the underlying bill would not kill the Internet. Green said he wanted net neutrality too, but also thought it was fair for companies, rather than consumers, to pay some of the freight for bandwidth-rich services.

Barton said that the bill has strong network neutrality language already, though he points out that term wasn't even in the discussions until a few months ago. He said he didn't think that the doomsday scenarios the amendment's backers predicted were going to happen and strongly opposed the amendment.