Web war: Nothing neutral about It

Catherine Holahan
31 Jan 2007

There's a high-stakes battle raging in Washington over who picks up the tab for the rising rivers of Internet data and the newly upgraded networks that deliver it. On one side are a host of tech companies"”from Google (GOOG) to Yahoo! (YHOO) to Intel (INTC) to Microsoft (MSFT)"”that specialize in Web-related content and technology, pushing for rules that they say would keep the Internet free from discriminatory pricing. On the other are the phone and cable companies that run the networks shuttling that information from place to place. They oppose regulation of the Internet. Last year, the skirmish ended in stalemate.

The battle will rage on again in 2007, with the Google camp likely to gain the upper hand. Both sides of the issue spent the better part of 2006 trying in vain to win over the then-Republican-controlled Congress to its vision of the Internet's future. A bill that favored telecom companies such as AT&T (T) and cable operators such as Comcast (CMCSA) was passed in June by the House of Representatives, but it went on to die in the Senate. Similarly, an amendment to that bill viewed as favorable to the opposite camp was also rejected, largely by Republicans (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/8/06, 'Web Titans' D.C. Blues').

This year, the Democrats are in control, and they're seen as more sympathetic to laws favoring so-called network neutrality, which would bar phone and cable companies from erecting tiered pricing that favors some Web traffic or sites over others. On Jan. 9, Senators Byron Dorgan (D.-N.D.) and Olympia Snowe (R.-Me.), reintroduced the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, which would keep Internet service providers from prioritizing the traffic to some Web sites over others. An earlier version of the bill faltered in a Senate committee in June after receiving an 11-11 tie vote that split roughly along party lines, with Republicans largely opposing the measure.

New Day in Congress

In an e-mail, Snowe said she believed the bill should receive a warmer reception in 2007. 'I do think this legislation has a better chance of being passed by the full Senate this year,' she wrote, adding that more people understand the issue. 'Also, with the shift of the majority in both the Senate and the House, I am optimistic that Senator Dorgan and I will be able to get the votes we need in the Senate Commerce Committee and on the Senate floor.'

Outside supporters are no less sanguine. One of the movement's biggest proponents, Representative Ed Markey (D.-Mass.), is now chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, one of the groups that vets Web-related legislation. Markey has said he will reintroduce his own net neutrality legislation this year. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.) also has spoken out in favor of net neutrality, notes Craig Aaron, a spokesman for Free Press, a policy group that supports net-neutrality legislation. 'We're moving from a leadership that was clearly against net neutrality in Congress to a new day,' Aaron says.

A new day, perhaps"”but not necessarily a new law. Lawmakers are likely to be focused on what many consider a more pressing legislative agenda that includes the war in Iraq, health care, and the environment. 'There are much more important things for the Congress to pay attention to than net neutrality,' says David Farber, professor of computer science and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. 'There are things going on in the rest of the world that are much more vital for this country.'

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