Dems plan to hold firm on neutrality


WASHINGTON -- It might not rank up there with abortion, the war or the economy, but the political lines have been drawn over the network neutrality issue with Democrats staking it out as a policy territory they plan to defend.

The politicization of the issue was strikingly evident on Tuesday in the Senate Commerce Committee as Democrats lined up to ballyhoo the nondiscrimination policy as the Internet's savior and Republicans vilified it as the a regulatory stranglehold on commerce.

"It is a political division now and it's getting more so," said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, the panel's GOP co-chairman. "I do not think telecommunications law should come under election-year politics."

A point made more stark by Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., who warned against moving too fast. "Writing regulations based on how we think companies might behave and how customers might act is dangerous indeed," he said.

But Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a proponent of the doctrine and a critic of the shrinking universe of media companies, said Sununu was all wet.

"In recent years policy has received too little attention," he said. "Network neutrality principals are not some nit-picky regulatory structure. It's not a question of changing things we can't predict. It's already happened.

Democrats even brought in a couple of Hollywood names to add a little luster to the hearing as actress-producer-director Justine Bateman and WGA-West President Patric Verrone spoke out in support of the doctrine.

"The idea of your site succeeding or failing based upon whether or not you paid the telecom companies enough to carry your material or allow quick access is appalling," Bateman told the committee.

Bateman told The Reporter that she was asked to testify because she spoke up on the issue during the writers' strike and because she was starting up FM78.TV as a new avenue for independent distribution. Getting new creative products in front of people could become even more difficult if the companies controlling the Internet's backbone decide to favor content in which they have an interest.

Verrone amplified that sentiment: "When your employers are the same companies that control the media, it's hard to get your message out."

He contends that only the government can ensure that the owners of the information pipelines in the U.S. do not interfere with the free exchange of ideas.

"The only thing bigger than corporations in this country is the government," he said. "So we think we have to make clear to legislators that we need somebody making sure that that pipe is neutral."

Their testimony highlights another division as the big Hollywood studios seem to be taking the Republican stance on the doctrine. MPAA president and CEO Dan Glickman thinks a network neutrality law is a bad idea and said so a ShoWest. Most of the major studios filed comments at the FCC opposing any commission action on the issue. No studio representatives testified on Tuesday.

Democrats pounded away at FCC chairman Kevin Martin urging him to move quickly against Comcast, Verizon and other big network operators who stand accused of violating the commission's network neutrality principals.

Martin told the senators that there was no need for them to pass a network neutrality law as he already had the power to punish wrong doers. While he told them that he didn't need any more power, he made it clear that he has targeted Comcast for an intensive exam.

Martin told lawmakers the company used "blunt means to reduce peer-to-peer traffic by blocking certain traffic completely" but said the agency had yet to finish its investigation of the cable company's broadband network management practices.

One thing that everyone seems to agree on is that piracy is the scourge of the Internet, and that anything the government does in the arena should take that into account.

"I think that intellectual property rights must be a part of any discussion that considers the future of the Internet," said Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore. "Illegal content distribution over the Internet is a large part of the economic harm caused by piracy each year."

Martin told the lawmaker that a network operator "filtering" for illegal content wouldn't run afoul of the commission's network neutrality principals.

"I think that's fundamentally different than the network management practice that focuses on a particular application that says we're going to stop this particular practice or peer-to-peer practice," he said. "Those kinds of practices would be over and under inclusive stopping some use of that technology that distributes legal content and it wouldn't catch other technology that is distributing content illegally."