The Senate Commerce Committee started deliberations Thursday on a bill overhauling the 1996 Telecommunications Act that could allow broadband providers to use a tiered pricing plan on Internet content.
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They call their idea net neutrality. Clever name, bad idea.
As an ongoing ad campaign shows, there are few neutral parties in the battle over so-called "network neutrality." The central question: whether all content on the Internet is created equal.
The issue has led to a raging debate on Capitol Hill over proposed new regulation that would prevent a two-tiered Internet in which companies might pay more for faster delivery of their content.
The proposal has created divisions within the two political parties and pit some of the largest global communications and Internet companies against one another.
On one side are the companies that provide businesses and consumers with Internet access: telecommunications giants such as AT&T, Verizon and Bellsouth, and cable companies like Comcast. This group argues that the costs of an expanding Internet should be borne in part by the Internet companies using ever more of the space, for example, to send video.
They want to stick consumers with the bill.
An industry-funded advocacy group, HandsOff.org, is waging a TV ad campaign and has taken out full-page print spots, including one in today's Washington Post singling out Google by name.
Google is, in fact, a leading member of the opposing, equally powerful coalition in this battle that is calling for new regulation, and includes Microsoft, Yahoo, Amazon and eBay.
Some of these companies have joined grassroots efforts, such as SavetheInternet.com, which represents a disparate array of interest groups across the political spectrum, from the ACLU on the left to Gun Owners of America on the right.
Such efforts have also garnered popular support. An online petition amassed more than a million signatures favoring new regulation that its proponents say prevents any division of the Internet that could convert the information superhighway into a toll road.
REP. EDWARD MARKEY (D), Massachusetts: Right now, we are facing the greatest threat to the Internet in its history.
Two weeks ago, this side, backed by some members of Congress, failed to get so-called net neutrality regulations written into a new telecommunications law. They're trying again now in the Senate, where the Commerce Committee began debating similar legislation today.