US House panel approves net neutrality bill

A U.S. House of Representatives committee has approved a bill that would prohibit broadband providers from blocking or impairing their customers’ access to Web content offered by competitors.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 20-13 to approve the bill, called the Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act. Bill sponsor James Sensenbrenner, the Republican chairman of the committee, was joined by a handful of Republicans and most of the committee’s Democrats in supporting the bill.

Some committee members said they had questions about the bill’s use of a 1914 antitrust law to enforce so-called net neutrality, but many ended up supporting the bill after the House Energy and Commerce Committee in April approved a different, wide-ranging telecommunications reform bill that does not have strong antiblocking rules.

The Energy and Commerce Committee bill gives that committee the sole jurisdiction for resolving content-blocking disputes, and several members of the House Judiciary Committee said that bill would take away their oversight of communication antitrust issues.

The Energy and Commerce legislation, awaiting action on the House floor, would allow the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to investigate blocking abuses only after the fact, and it would prohibit the FCC from creating new net neutrality rules.

In contrast, the Internet Freedom bill would require broadband providers to give independent content providers the same speed and quality of service as they have. The bill is needed because most U.S. residents have little choice in broadband providers, said Sensenbrenner, from Wisconsin. A market with few consumer choices has “created an environment ripe for anticompetitive and discriminatory misconduct,” he said.

A broad group of Internet companies and consumer groups have voiced support for the bill, but broadband providers such as AT&T and network equipment vendors such as Cisco Systems Inc. have questioned the need for a law.

This week, the First Response Coalition, a trade group representing police and firefighters, sent a letter to the Judiciary Committee saying that debate over “niche issues” such as net neutrality are slowing down broader telecom reform legislation that would give emergency responders more radio spectrum. “First responders cannot wait any longer to have modern communications and interoperable radios,” said the letter.

The bill may help prohibit some anticompetitive conduct, but it would also “prohibit a lot of conduct that is pro-competitive,” said Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican.

Under the bill, an innovative company that wanted to provide a new service requiring significant bandwidth couldn’t do it unless its broadband provider had enough bandwidth to offer the same service to other companies, Smith said. He also questioned whether broadband providers, under the bill, would be allowed to block access to illegal P-to-P (peer-to-peer) networks, if those networks also provided some legal files.

Smith and other opponents of the bill said the committee shouldn’t try to create new regulations for the fast-changing Internet industry. “I believe [the bill] reaches too far and will stifle future innovations instead of protect them,” Smith said.

AT&T is “disappointed” in the Judiciary Committee’s vote, the company said in a statement. “We are optimistic that the majority in Congress will see this legislation as an attempt to solve a problem that does not exist,” said Tim McKone, AT&T executive vice president for federal relations.

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