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Debate Examines Candidates’ Telecom Policies

“President” John McCain would not support network-neutrality legislation, but would push for a regulatory regime that did not draw boundaries between broadcast and cable and perhaps even the Internet.

“President” Barack Obama would oppose further media consolidation until there was a sufficient diversity of voices and support network neutrality as a way to ensure that the American people had unfiltered access to the "true facts" important to them.

Those were some of the bright lines drawn between the two presidential candidates by campaign surrogates at a sometimes-spirited Federalist Society debate in Washington, D.C., Tuesday.

Former Democratic Federal Communications Commission chairman Reed Hundt, who is backing Obama and advises him on communications policy, said the Bush administration's "disinformation campaign" about the run-up to the Iraq war was reason enough to back network neutrality. He added that the major media had helped to "buffalo and delude" the country.

On the other side was former Republican FCC chairman Michael Powell, who said there had not been a lack of voices on the war, pointing to the rise of the Internet and bloggers. Powell said network neutrality would be the first step toward regulation of the Internet. He added that McCain supported a free and open Internet, including the FCC's four open-access principles, but that it would be "dangerous" to legislate before a problem had been identified. He said the antitrust laws could deal with anticompetitive conduct, but Ph.Ds were still battling over the difference between discrimination and reasonable network management and the issue was not ripe for Congress to step in.

Hundt said the antitrust laws weren't being sufficiently enforced under the Bush administration and network neutrality is simply a version of the common-carrier requirements that worked for decades.

On the issue of media content, Powell said McCain would favor "harmonizing" regulation across various platforms, adding that McCain thinks the system is "broken" because it treats broadcast and cable content differently. "Is it really sensible that when my child changes the channel from 71 to 7, the First Amendment changes?," he asked.

"I think that without reaching a specific conclusion about where those limits should be, Sen. McCain feels passionately that we have led ourselves to an irrational and incoherent regulatory regime," Powell said.