The House Telecommunications Subcommittee Wednesday convincingly voted down (23 to 8) an amendment that would have mandated network neutrality.
The amendment had been introduced on a national video franchising bill being marked up in the committee Wednesday.
The bill already contains authority for the FCC to punish violators of its broad Internet nondiscrimination principles with $500,000 fines, but the authority is only to adjudicate complaints, not to establish regulations mandating network neutrality.
In addition to codifying those FCC guidelines--essentially divided into four basic principles of access--the amendment would have added a fifth principle preventing network operators from charging Internet content providers for a bigger piece of the broadband pipe, while still allowing them to charge users for different download speeds.
Backers of the amendment, led by ranking Democrat Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and co-sponsor Rick Boucher (D-Va.), argued that without the amendment, the bill "fundamentally and detrimentally" changes the character of the Internet by allowing networks to favor their own content, while making it harder for independent innovators.
"For consumer to pay [for faster download speeds], that's one thing," said Markey, "for innovative companies to have to pay a tithe is something else," he said.
Boucher said that the "garage" innovators would not able to pay that tithe, or what he said amounts to a toll to access the Internet "fast lane." Co-sponsor Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said that without mandated net neutrality, the Internet would be balkanized and "undermined as a force of innovation and change."
Republican Heather Wilson from New Mexico said the amendment might go too far, but that the bill did not go far enough in insuring network neutrality. She supported the amendment, but she and its sponsors were definitely in the minority.
Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.) conceded that the net neutrality issue was one of the central debates of the bill, but argued that there is not yet a definition of network neutrality that anyone can agree on, and that it is better to let the FCC come up with that definition on a case-by-case basis, with the power to punish offenders.
While Markey spoke in apocalyptic terms, John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said the "sky was not falling" and that the bill would encourage multiple pipes and quicker access, rather than discourage risk capital and innovation as he says the amendment would.
National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Kyle McSlarrow said the margin was larger than he expected.
"My sense of it is that it reflects real discomfort on the part of a lot of members who just aren't certain what it is going to happen in the marketplace and, before they jump one direction or another and make a big mistake, they want to see how the marketplace evolves. I think it reflects caution, which I think is appropriate."
Andrew Schwartzman of Media Access Project was not pleased with the amendment's defeat: "The committee today rejected an amendment that would have imposed meaningful non-discrimination requirements on broadband providers," he said Wednesday.
"This allows restrictions on important and innovative content such as the provocative political satire jibjab.com generated during the last presidential election. Innovations such as blogs, web videos, sites such as YourTube.com never would have gotten off the ground if content-based discrimination had been permitted on the internet."
It didn't set well with Jeff Chester of the Center For Digital Democracy, either.
"Members from both sides of the aisle endorsed a plan which will permit cable and phone companies to construct 'pay as you surf, pay as you post' tollbooths for the Internet," he said of the amendment's defeat.
"Special-interest money contributed to committee members has given the AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and others another brand new monopoly to control--our digital communications network known as the Internet. The committee's 23-8 against "network neutrality" was more about the power of big money to influence their anti-Internet freedom position."
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