Bill aims to set rules of the road for the Internet

House lawmakers are devising a bill to set rules of the road for the Internet, even though the effort may fall short of more aggressive efforts to ensure net neutrality.

According to a draft of legislation that circulated Monday, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and other leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee are working on a bill that would prohibit wired Internet providers from favoring one type of Web content over another in the speed of delivery, but the legislation would include looser restrictions on wireless providers. Talks about the final form of the legislative proposal were still ongoing.

The distinction between the so-called wireline Internet and wireless broadband has been central to efforts to find a net neutrality compromise between consumer advocates and content owners on the one side and cable and telecom companies on the other. Last month, Google and Verizon announced a proposal that would impose net neutrality “nondiscrimination” rules on wireline but not on wireless. But the proposal was greeted with criticism and doubts among those who have long supported stringent laws to make sure that all Web content is treated equally. Internet providers have argued that restrictions on wireless services would stifle the growth of the business.

Instead, some public interest groups are pushing the FCC to reclassify the Internet as a “Title II” telecommunications service, something that would give it the authority to impose net neutrality rules on Internet providers.

But the draft of the House bill specifically prohibits that authority.

Instead, the FCC would have the authority to act on complaints as they come in, with the ability to fine a provider up to $2 million.

The proposed bill also sets an expiration date of Dec. 31, 2012, but requires that the FCC deliver a report to the House and Senate a year before that to recommend additional consumer protections and authority it would need to carry out the National Broadband Plan, the FCC proposal to make high-speed access to the Internet ubiquitous across the country.

Of particular interest to Hollywood studios is that the Internet providers have the authority to combat piracy, and the draft legislation spells out that its rules apply only to lawful Internet traffic. The draft bill prohibits broadband providers from blocking lawful content, applications or services, except for “reasonable” efforts to manage traffic.

Lawmakers are hard pressed to bring the bill to the floor before the pending House recess, which could be as early as next week. Although Waxman has expressed support for net neutrality, the latest effort at finding common ground was a driven by a desire to move some protections forward nearly a year after FCC chairman Julius Genachowski first proposed a set of open Internet principles. Art Brodsky, communications director of the consumer group Public Knowledge, said that he had seen copies of the proposed legislation but did not want to comment until it was in a final form.

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