Lawmaker may jump into network neutrality fray

By Peter Kaplan

Congress may have to stop broadband Internet providers from charging content providers higher fees for priority access to the Internet, a senior House of Representatives Democrat said on Tuesday.

"I am concerned that if Congress stands by and does nothing, we will soon find ourselves living in a world where those who pay, can play (on the Internet), but those who don't are simply out of luck," Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers said.

Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, may offer legislation that would make it a violation of U.S. antitrust law for network providers to discriminate against some content, an aide to the lawmaker said after a committee hearing on the issue.

That legislation would be similar to a bill introduced by Conyers during the last session of Congress, which was approved by the Judiciary committee but was never brought up for a vote of the full House.

Conyers echoed the concerns expressed by a civil liberties lawyer and other open-network advocates at the hearing. They argued that discrimination by broadband network providers could lead to censorship of political speech and shut out the voices of independent artists.

"To be sure, if we go in (that) direction, it will stifle future innovation on the Internet," Conyers said.

At issue is the so-called "network neutrality" controversy that pits open-Internet advocates against some service providers, who say they need to take reasonable steps to manage ever-growing traffic on their networks.

Some of network neutrality complaints have centered on charges that broadband companies were engaged in anti-competitive conduct, while others involved charges of political censorship.

The net neutrality issue has been spotlighted by a series of incidents in which network operators, such as Comcast Corp and Verizon Wireless were accused of hindering certain online data moving over their networks, such as file-sharing or text-messaging.

Verizon Wireless is a joint venture of Verizon Communications Inc and Vodafone Group Plc.

The FCC has been looking into complaints by consumer groups that Comcast has blocked some file-sharing services which are used to distribute large digital media files such as TV shows and movies.

Comcast denies impairing some applications and says it merely manages the system for the good of all users.

The FCC also received a separate complaint stemming from an incident last year in which Verizon Wireless denied a request from an abortion rights group to set up a text-messaging system for its subscribers. Verizon Wireless later reversed itself and allowed the text-messaging system.

Tuesday's hearing prompted an immediate response from an advocacy group that represents some broadband providers and other companies, Hands Off the Internet. It warned that imposing network neutrality regulations would inhibit the investment needed to upgrade broadband networks.

"Free speech is best protected through an unregulated Internet," the group said in a statement.

Similar views were expressed by a legal expert who told lawmakers at the House hearing that broadband companies need flexibility to manage their networks and alleviate congestion from streaming video, Internet phone service and other bandwidth-hungry applications.

"Under these circumstances, requiring those most responsible for congestion to bear a greater percentage of the costs would be both good network management and fair from a consumer standpoint," said Christopher Yoo, a law professor from the University of Pennsylvania.

Conyers denied that he was trying to regulate the Internet.

"Antitrust law is not regulation," Conyers said. "It exists to correct distortions in the free market."

Last month the chairman of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee introduced separate legislation that would require regulators at the Federal Communications Commission to study the network neutrality issue and hold public hearings.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin recently said that his agency was ready, if necessary, to step in and stop broadband providers from interfering with users' access.

(Editing by Carol Bishopric)

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