Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who helped draft the Communications, Consumer’s Choice and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006, a major telecommunications reform bill now under consideration in Congress, threw a bone to supporters of net neutrality yesterday when he offered some additional language strengthening the bill’s net neutrality provisions.
The latest version of the bill includes a new section, entitled the “Internet Consumer Bill of Rights Act,” which outlines specific provisions for safeguarding net neutrality, while at the same time allowing network operators to establish paid tiers of service on the Internet. It has some similarities to two “stand alone” net neutrality bills now circulating in the Senate.
The new “Bill of Rights” would require the FCC (News - Alert) to preserve “the free flow of ideas and information on the Internet;” to “promote public discourse on the Internet;” to “preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet and other interactive computer services, unfettered by Federal or State regulation;” to “encourage investment and innovation in Internet networks and applications markets through a diversity of business models;” and to “promote deployment of broadband networks nationwide.” It would also require Internet service providers allow each subscriber to “access and post any lawful content of that subscriber’s choosing; access any web page of that subscriber’s choosing; access and run any voice application, software, or service of that subscriber’s choosing; access and run any search engine of that subscriber’s choosing; connect any legal device of that subscriber’s choosing to the Internet access equipment of that subscriber, if such device does not harm the network of the Internet service provider; and receive clear and conspicuous information, in plain language, about the estimated speeds, capabilities, limitations, and pricing of any Internet service offered to the public.”
The new provision also states that consumers are to be allowed to do any of the above “without interference from any Federal, State, or local government, except as specifically authorized by law.”
“No Federal, State, or local government may limit, restrict, ban, prohibit, or otherwise regulate content on the Internet because of the religious views, political views, or any other views expressed in such content unless specifically authorized by law; and no Internet service provider engaged in interstate commerce may limit, restrict, ban, prohibit, or otherwise regulate content on the Internet because of the religious views, political views, or any other views expressed in such content unless specifically authorized by law,” the new section states. It also includes a provision requiring service providers to offer all of their services on a “stand alone” basis, meaning that ISPs cannot force consumers to buy services they do not want or need through bundled packages.
Unlike previous net neutrality bills and amendments seen during this legislative session, Sen. Stevens’ “Bill of Rights” gives ISPs and network operators expanded (and very specific) rights to adjust their networks in order to preserve bandwidth, as well as the ability to take measures to protect their networks from viruses and denial of service attacks. Specifically an ISP may “protect the security, privacy, or integrity of the network or facilities of such provider, the computer of any subscriber, or any service, including by (A) blocking worms or viruses; or (B) preventing denial of service attacks; facilitate diagnostics, technical support, maintenance, network management, or repair of the network or service of such provider; prevent or detect unauthorized, fraudulent, or otherwise unlawful uses of the network or service of such provider.” In other words, ISPs are allowed to block unlawful content, including child pornography and Internet scams.
Similar to other net neutrality proposals, the Bill of Rights would establish an adjudication process for the FCC, under which the agency would have 120 days to respond to complaints of alleged “discrimination” on the Internet (previous proposals had set this time frame at either 160 days or 90 days). It would also give the FCC the power to impose fines on violators of net neutrality principles, and would also give the agency the power to impose an injunction and shut down a particular ISP if found guilty of violations. In addition, the FCC would be required to give Congress annual updates “on the developments in Internet traffic processing, routing, peering, transport, and interconnection,” including “how such developments impact the free-flow of information over the public Internet and the consumer and small business experience using the public Internet; business relationships between Internet service providers and applications and online user service providers; and the development of and services available over public and private Internet offerings.”
Although the “Bill of Rights” would give the FCC these powers, it would not allow it to establish additional rules regarding net neutrality without Congressional approval (the FCC can, however, make recommendations for changes) – something which most proponents of net neutrality have been pushing for.
Prior to the addition of the new “Bill of Rights,” the Communications, Consumer’s Choice and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006 only required the FCC to report on Internet access on an annual basis. However, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the top Democrat on the committee, and several other Senators have been pushing for more protections.
Some political analysts have said in published reports that the “compromise” offered by Sen. Stevens could end up preventing the entire Act from being taken down by Congressional Democrats during this session. The compromise would also work in the favor of the big telcos - including AT&T (News - Alert), BellSouth (News - Alert) and Verizon (News - Alert), who want to see the bill pass this year because it includes provisions allowing them to establish national franchises for the delivery of digital video services (IPTV (News - Alert)) over the Internet.
The Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled to consider amendments and vote on the Communications, Consumer’s Choice and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006 this Thursday.
Patrick Barnard is Associate Editor for TMCnet and a columnist covering the telecom industry. To see more of his articles, please visit Patrick Barnard’s columnist page.