Like the bloke in the Chumbawumba hit, net neutrality gets knocked down and gets back up again. Although it has been voted down in committee a couple of times already, it continues to resurface (that’s a hint, Congress). Before the end of the week, the US House of Representatives is expected to vote on a telecommunications bill along with two amendments dealing with the question of network neutrality.
There are two proposals on the table. The first comes from Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), which would take the curious route of modifying US antitrust law to ensure network neutrality. Under Rep. Sensenbrenner’s amendment, broadband ISPs would have to provide all content providers with the same speed and quality of service. That would have the effect of preventing broadband providers from throttling or prioritizing certain traffic.
The second proposal is offered by Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA). This would allow ISPs to do some traffic prioritization, but it would have to be offered for all services. By way of example, if AT&T wants to prioritize its own VoIP traffic over its network, it would have to give the same priority to VoIP traffic from its competitors.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has been opposed to net neutrality. In committee, he effected the removal of the bill’s original language around the issue, saying it is not yet necessary. However, he has been overruled by House Speaker Denny Hastert (R-IL), who said that lawmakers should be able to vote on it once it comes up on the House floor.
Even if the House gives network neutrality a big thumbs-up, it still needs to be approved by the Senate. So far, the upper house has rejected attempts at writing it into law. The most recent action came last month, when the Senate Commerce Committee stripped language about the topic from its own rewrite of the nation’s telecommunications laws and endorsing broadcast flags for both TV and digital radio. Yesterday, however, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), who chairs the Commerce Committee, allowed that he is open to revisiting the issue because "many members do not believe the provision in the existing bill goes far enough."
A number of groups are heavily lobbying Congress on the issue. Google is encouraging its users to to weigh in on the issue, asking them to call their Congressional representatives. Google cofounder Sergey Brin was in Washington DC earlier this week to lobby lawmakers on the issue (where he also shared some thoughts on his company’s involvement in China). Unlikely ideological bedfellows Christian Coalition and Moveon.org have also joined the fight.
Will it pass this time? I’m not placing any bets one way or another. What has become apparent is that congressmen are realizing that this is a Big Deal, and are actually listening to both sides of the issue. Even if the amendments proposed today fail, the issue will inevitably resurface as soon as the dust from today’s vote clears, no matter what Ed Whitacre says.