In what could turn out to be a significant development in the hotly contested debate over network neutrality, Congress began drafting new legislation this week to prevent broadband providers from charging content providers for priority access.
The network neutrality legislation, introduced on Tuesday, is being spearheaded by senior lawmakers, including Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-ND) and Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Me.).
"The success of the Internet has been its openness and the ability of anyone anywhere in this country to go on the Internet and reach the world," Dorgan was quoted in news reports as saying. "If the big interests who control the pipes become gatekeepers who erect tolls, it will have a significant impact on the Internet as we know it."
The two senators have called upon other legislators to help keep the Internet free of such gatekeepers. Dorgan and Snowe argue that if the legislation is not passed, these gatekeepers might put an end to Internet innovation and even damage freedom of speech.
Known as the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, the bill would require network operators (such as Verizon or AT&T) to run their networks in a nondiscriminatory manner, preventing certain types of traffic or traffic from certain sources (such as Yahoo, Google, or Amazon) from being prioritized or deprioritized.
The bill also would require network operators to offer broadband access without requiring the purchase of other services.
"The American public has an overwhelming interest in seeing this bill pass into law, ensuring that the online marketplace of ideas remains open and vibrant," said Ben Scott, policy director of the Free Press, a nonpartisan group working to increase public participation in policy debates.
Similar legislation generated much controversy last year. The new proposal, which faces significant political impediments, is not expected to be adopted quickly.
The ongoing struggle over network neutrality has been, for the most part, a fight over competing business models. Content providers, such as Google and Yahoo, do not want to pay additional fees to allow their users priority access to their sites and services.
However, telephone and cable companies say that efforts to limit their ability to charge for faster service, for one thing, would discourage the upgrading of networks, thereby harming consumers in the end.
These companies have argued that the government should focus on expanding broadband deployment to reach more Internet users rather than trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist.