Senators Resurrect 'Net Neutrality Bill

Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) reintroduced their network neutrality bill Jan. 9. The legislation would prevent broadband providers from manipulating Internet traffic. Support for network neutrality was generally split down party lines during the last Congress, with Democrats for and Republicans, except for Snowe, against. Network neutrality legislation was killed in the House last summer by the Republican majority there. Senate Democrats then took up the measure. Snowe and Dorgan introduced their bill during Commerce Committee hearings on a wide-ranging telecom package, which was ultimately blocked by Democrats because it lacked strong network neutrality language.

Broadband service providers like AT&T and Verizon want to be able to delegate bit-rates for buck on high-traffic sites like Google and Amazon. BSPs say they need the option to keep their data networks from being overwhelmed. Net neutrality supporters fear that BSPs will end up controlling what people can access online, and that all searches will eventually lead to a site owned by the provider.

The volley that started the network neutrality firefight was a comment by AT&T Chairman (then SBC chief) Ed Whitacre Jr., in a November 2005 Business Week interview. Even though subscribers pay upwards of $60 a month for broadband, Whitacre proposed charging sites like Google and Vonage as well.

"Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it," he said "The Internet can't be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment, and for a Google or a Yahoo or a Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes for free is nuts!'"

Whitacre's "nuts" was the shot heard 'round the Internet by users accustomed to the prevailing meritocracy of the system. Bloggers went on high alert and network neutrality was born. Whitacre recently relented to abide by network neutrality tenants for two years to get the FCC stamp of approval on AT&T's takeover of BellSouth.

Snowe said the reintroduction of her and Dorgan's bill, coupled with the AT&T conditions "are significant victories in the fight to ensure nondiscrimination on the Internet."

Dorgan said the Internet was a place where "anyone with a good idea" could create a business.

"The marketplace picked winners and losers, not some central gatekeeper," he said. "That freedom--the very core of what makes the Internet what it is today--must be preserved."

Dorgan and Snowe said the bill generated 1 million letters and e-mails of support when it was rolled out in the previous Congress. Cosponsors include Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.); Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.); Tom Harkin (D-Iowa); Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.); Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.); and Barack Obama (D-Ill.).