No Neutral Ground With Net Neutrality

From a formal Senate hearing to backroom intrigue in the House to political theater starring musician Moby, the issue of network neutrality swirled around Capitol Hill today.

As cable industry spokesman Kyle McSlarrow said, “This [net neutrality] is now the number one issue.”

Proponents of net neutrality want Congress to enact legislation prohibiting broadband providers such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast from charging content providers based on bandwidth consumption.

Without that provision, proponents claim, the Internet will be dominated by a handful of powerful telephone and cable company gatekeepers who will have the ability to decide which sites work best based on who pays the most.

Testifying at a morning Senate hearing on a sweeping telecom reform bill, McSlarrow called it a tough issue. “It’s a fundamentally stark choice of some regulation of the Internet or no regulation of the Internet.”

So far, Congress isn’t listening.

In both the Senate and House telecom reform efforts, the question of discriminatory handling of network traffic would be left to the Federal Communications Commission.

“If we don’t get this right, we’re going to have a lot of people in the slow lane,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). She and other Democrats on the panel are expected to add net neutrality amendments to the Senate bill when it comes up for a committee vote in June.

Similar efforts by House Democrats failed last month when the House Commerce Committee approved legislation allowing broadband providers to charge content providers extra fees to deliver enhanced services.

That legislation, though, was in doubt Thursday when Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced a bill that would make it illegal for broadband providers to “fail to provide its broadband network services on reasonable and nondiscriminatory terms.”

While the lawmakers pontificated, the diminutive Moby promised political retribution for elected officials who ignore net neutrality.

Speaking at a lunchtime event on the terrace of the House Cannon Office Building, Moby warned lawmakers opposing net neutrality: “We are watching. There will be a huge backlash and don’t be surprised if your constituents vote against you.”

Moby said he was representing the Artists and Musicians for Internet Freedom, part of a broader group organized by the Save the Internet coalition. Other entertainers who have joined Moby include R.E.M., Q-Tip, the Indigo Girls and the Dixie Chicks.

“It seems simple. The system works just fine right now,” he said as House office workers scrambled to tell co-workers that Moby was, if not in the House, at least on the terrace.

With reporters and camera crews easily outnumbering a handful of people standing behind Moby holding Save the Internet signs, he added, “It doesn’t make sense to privatize the Internet.”

Not to be upstaged, FreedomWorks, a group opposing network neutrality, circulated through the crowd passing out a statement urging Congress to not allow “Hollywood and big Internet businesses from exposing the Internet to federal legislation for the first time.”

Next Thursday, the Senate Commerce Committee is expected to hold another hearing that will focus on network neutrality.