WASHINGTON – A Democratic takeover on Capitol Hill would be good news to those who say the government should prohibit telecommunications giants from playing favorites with Internet content.
The idea, known as network neutrality, is about preventing those who control traffic on the Internet from allowing well-heeled Web sites to, in effect, buy their way to the front of the line in a world where data flow can be as congested as Los Angeles traffic.
Proponents say it should be a bipartisan issue.
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But lobbyists for the big companies that control most of the physical Internet in the United States are worried that the Democrats might pick up the seats they need to take over one or both chambers of Congress.
The issue pits those companies — including AT&T Inc. (T) and Comcast Corp. (CMCSA) — against a well-organized grass-roots campaign that is joined by some of the nation's biggest Internet success stories, such as Google (GOOG) and eBay (EBAY).
Net neutrality advocates say the "Internet's First Amendment" is at stake. They argue that if those who run the network are allowed to discriminate against Web traffic based on which sites pay them the most, it will strangle the Internet's freewheeling, democratic nature.
Those who provide Internet service call it a simple issue of economics. Since companies like Google are pumping more and more information through their networks, those who provide the data pipelines should be able to charge more to pay to upgrade transmission capacity, they say.
Last year, both the House and Senate worked on bills that would let telecommunications companies like AT&T and Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) get into the video delivery business and compete with cable companies, without having to obtain franchise licenses in thousands of individual communities.
House members, under intense lobbying from the former Bell companies, were able to pass the legislation while beating back attempts to attach strong network neutrality provisions.
In the Senate a much more ambitious bill has yet to make it to the floor, and while there is a chance it may see action during an expected lame-duck session in November, its prospects are dim.
At the same time, Verizon and AT&T have persuaded state legislatures to pass relief from franchise rules, making that part of the push for a federal law a much lower priority.
That means network neutrality proponents will have to find a different bill to attach language to, or continue efforts to get something passed independently.
In the House, if the Democrats prevail, neutrality advocates can expect a much warmer reception than when the Republicans were in control.
The current chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is Rep. Joe Barton, a Republican from AT&T's home state of Texas.
Barton has consistently opposed network neutrality, as has Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who chairs the Internet and Technology subcommittee.
By contrast, Rep. John Dingell, also of Michigan and who would assume the chairmanship if Democrats take over, has been sympathetic to network neutrality proponents. And Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who would take over the Internet and Technology subcommittee, wrote an unsuccessful network neutrality amendment in the House and has made the issue a top priority.
Dingell is also expected to live up to his reputation as a tough overseer of the agencies that answer to his committee, such as the Federal Communications Commission.
On the Senate side, while a Democratic takeover is less likely, a Democratic pickup of one or two seats may still be significant.
Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, the ranking Democrat who would take over the committee if the Democrats win control, supports network neutrality, while current chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, blames the issue for sinking his broad telecommunications bill.
Regardless of the election's outcome, network neutrality legislation would still have to be signed by President Bush — something that both sides acknowledge is unlikely to happen.