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Inouye Rips New Stevens Draft Bill

The top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee Monday refused to endorse the newest version of a sweeping telecommunications bill sponsored by chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), calling the third draft released last Friday “a further step backward for consumers.”

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) attacked the bill on a number of fronts, including Stevens’ approach to addressing the ability of broadband access providers to pressure Web-based providers of voice, video and information services to pay for priority access to end users, or to pay to not have their services blocked.

“The new draft’s provisions on net neutrality utterly fail to protect consumers and preserve an open Internet. Under the current language, network operators will have the ability to dictate what the Internet of the future will look like, what content it will include, and how it will operate,” Inouye said.

Stevens is hoping his committee will approve the bill (S. 2686) on Thursday. Commerce members must file amendments no later than Tuesday. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is expected to offer as an amendment his bill (S. 3457) that would eliminate local cable franchising for phone companies that simply promise to offer programming on an a la carte basis.

“We are expecting a significant number of amendments,” a Senate staff member said Monday.

Without support from Inouye, Stevens might have trouble producing a bill that won’t spark a partisan battle on the Senate floor.

“I had hoped throughout the process that our committee members could work together to develop a bipartisan bill that would encourage innovation, promote fair competition, and ensure that all consumers would get the full benefits of modern communications networks,” Inouye said. “Regrettably, [I and some committee Democrats] believe the latest draft of communications legislation marks a further step backward for consumers, and it calls into question our commitment to passing a bipartisan communications reform package in this Congress.”

In his first two drafts, Stevens required the Federal Communications Commission to monitor the Internet market and file annual reports for five years. While Stevens agreed that more needed to be done in this area, he refused to support language intended to referee commercial disputes between Comcast and Verizon on the one hand and Google and Yahoo! on the other.

Instead, the Stevens bill changed to include nine specific Internet consumer rights, including the right to access all lawful content. It would allow a subscriber to file an FCC complaint if he or she believed an ISP was violating one of the rights. The FCC would have 120 days to adjudicate a complaint, and may fine the ISP up to $10,000 per violation under a $75,000 cap for continuing violations. The FCC would be allowed to issue an injunction, but it may not enlarge or modify an ISP obligation through the adjudication process.

Stevens would allow ISPs to manage their networks to combat worms, viruses, and spam, and to ensure privacy and network security. ISPs would be allowed to block child pornography and other content authorized to be blocked. ISPs would be allowed to provide parental controls and a family tier, though the latter was undefined. ISPs may block any content at the subscriber’s request.

Under the Stevens bill, the FCC would still need to file annual reports with Congress on Internet market developments and make recommendations where appropriate. The bill would bar the FCC from promulgating any net neutrality regulations.

“A lot of Republicans hate it. They think we went too far (on net neutrality),” a Senate staff member said. "We had the votes just for [an FCC] study."

National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow said in a statement Monday that the Stevens bill was right to avoid regulating commercial relationships.

“While we continue to view government regulation of the Internet as unnecessary and unwise, we commend and agree with chairman Stevens that the right focus is on the consumer,” McSlarrow said.

In his statement, Inouye called the Internet bill of rights insufficient protection for consumers.

“In the absence of meaningful consumer protections, network operators will have the unfettered capacity to discriminate against unaffiliated online content, degrade their quality of service, or impose steep charges for prioritized traffic,” he said. “Without further improvements that restore principles of nondiscrimination, competition and service will suffer as network operators begin to dictate the choices available to consumers.For a bill of this importance and impact, consumers deserve far better.”