By KEN BELSON
Published: March 2, 2006
Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, will introduce new legislation today that would prohibit Internet network operators from charging companies for faster delivery of their content to consumers or favoring some content providers over others.
The bill is meant to ease growing fears that open Internet access may be blocked or compromised by the Bell phone carriers and cable operators, which may create tiers of service for delivering content to consumers, much the way the post office charges more for overnight mail delivery than for regular delivery.
Consumer groups and Internet companies like Google and Amazon contend that any move by the network operators to levy fees for premium delivery service would harm Web sites that are unwilling to pay for faster delivery.
The Wyden legislation, called the Internet Non-Discrimination Act of 2006, aims to prohibit network operators from assessing charges that give some content providers better access than others or blocking its subscribers from accessing content.
"You best compete by letting every company play on a level field, but these proposals would tilt the field," Senator Wyden said of the plans discussed by some network operators. "The Net has been about access and equal treatment and giving everyone a fair shake, and people who own these fat pipes, these cable and telecommunications people who say that they can't keep doing this, want to undermine that."
He added that his bill would prevent network operators from giving preferential treatment to affiliated companies. Time Warner Cable, he said, should not be able to give other Time Warner companies better access to the network than their rivals.
The bill more squarely confronts the concerns of consumer groups than a broader bill proposed last summer by Senator John Ensign, Republican of Nevada, which would prevent Internet service providers from blocking access, but would largely leave network operators to manage their own networks, including potentially charging content providers for a premium service.
That bill has won support from 16 Republican senators.
The Federal Communications Commission has largely stood on the sidelines as this debate as evolved. Though the commission has said it supports the principle of open, undifferentiated access to the networks, it has not taken any regulatory action.
"One reason I'm hesitant to have the commission jump in is because we don't want to impede companies' ability to invest," said Kevin Martin, the commission chairman.
Phone and cable companies largely agree that they should have the right to offer Internet companies the option of paying for faster delivery of their content. They argue that since traffic over their networks is rising, companies may want to pay to ensure that their Web sites can be accessed quickly by consumers.
Executives at Verizon, for instance, want to give companies a chance to buy a dedicated link to Verizon's customers so that their data would be set apart from general traffic on the network.
But consumer groups say that creating a "fast lane" for those who can pay would ultimately result in a series of "walled" networks run by the phone and cable companies, which is very different from the open Internet model that exists now.
"We're concerned that even if you have a robust basic Internet and higher-speed lane, they will only make it available to their favorite partners, and that's discrimination," said Gigi Sohn, the president of Public Knowledge, an advocacy group that focuses on telecommunications and intellectual property issues.
Ron Wyden is my hero.