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Democrats push ‘Net neutrality

Internet Freedom Preservation Act is introduced

WASHINGTON — Democrats, who all but sank major communications reform legislation in the previous congressional session over the issue of so-called ‘Net neutrality, marked the first day of the new Congress by introducing a bill that will mandate ‘Net neutrality, which is intended to guarantee the equal accessibility and flow of content over the Internet.

The Internet Freedom Preservation Act, sponsored by Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), “would ensure that broadband service providers do not discriminate against Internet content, applications or services by offering preferential treatment,” according to a statement by Dorgan.

Without a federal mandate for ‘Net neutrality, Dorgan said, broadband providers could be “gatekeepers capable of deciding which content can get through to consumers, and which content providers could get special deals, faster speeds and better access to the consumer.”

The bill “marks another step toward ensuring the fate of the Internet lies in the hands of its users and not the hands of a few gatekeepers,” Snowe said in a statement. “The tide has turned in the debate between those who seek to maintain equality and those who would benefit from the creation of a toll road on the Internet superhighway.”

Last year, the GOP-controlled Senate tried to move a massive communications reform bill that included changes to national video franchising rules. Democrats tried but failed to attach a ‘Net neutrality amendment to the bill while still in committee. While some Republicans supported their effort, Democrats took the lead in threatening a filibuster should the bill come to a floor vote without any provisions for ‘Net neutrality. As a result, the bill never made it to the floor.

Legislation requires broadband service providers to operate networks in a nondiscriminatory manner, while leaving them free to protect the security of the network or offer different levels of broadband connection to users.

Consumer groups hailed the bill. “This bill will help ensure that consumers will continue to enjoy the competitive and affordable services that broadband has brought them and that big telecommunications companies cannot use their networks to hinder consumers’ access to those services,” said Jeannine Kenney, senior policy analyst at Consumers Union, in a statement.

Opponents of ‘Net neutrality say a federal mandate is a solution in search of a problem “that doesn’t exist,” said Peter Davidson, Verizon senior VP for federal government relations.

“Most policymakers will focus on how to increase broadband deployment, and wonder how ‘Net regulation advances that goal,” Davidson added. “It’s ironic that this bill is introduced at the same time the Consumer Electronics Show is filling the news with broadband-enabled innovations. There is a disconnect between consumers’ desires for new products and services and the stifling effects of this bill.”

Both the Motion Picture Assn. of American and the Recording Industry Assn. of America declined to comment on the bill. Officials at the MPAA have said that member companies are still split over whether ‘Net neutrality will be good or bad for business.

Co-sponsors of the bill include Dem Sens. John Kerry (Mass.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Tom Harkin (Iowa), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.).