Backers of the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally are making a fresh attempt to pass "network neutrality" legislation, hoping that a new Democratic majority in Congress will improve its chances.
North Dakota Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan and Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe introduced the bill Tuesday. They were joined by six other Democratic senators, including likely presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.
The measure is identical to a bill that was introduced in the last session of Congress, but did not make it to the floor for a vote. It is similar to an amendment that died in the Senate Commerce Committee on an 11-11 vote.
The issue has gotten a higher profile thanks to AT&T Inc.'s decision to offer some network neutrality guarantees in order to secure approval for its $86 billion takeover of BellSouth Corp.
Dorgan said he thinks prospects are better this year thanks to the regime change, especially with the elevation of Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, to chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. Inouye voted in favor of the amendment last year.
"I think we have a shot at getting this done," Dorgan said. "It's controversial, it's not easy, but it's really important public policy."
The bill's prospects in Congress may be better this year, but whether it will get past the White House is another question. Some of President Bush's top fundraisers are among its biggest opponents.
Ivan Seidenberg, chairman and CEO of Verizon Communications Inc., became a Bush "Pioneer" by raising at least $100,000 for the president's 2004 campaign. AT&T Chairman and CEO Edward Whitacre Jr. made the "Ranger" list by collecting at least $200,000 for the president.
The White House did not return a call seeking comment.
Both companies released statements shortly after the bill's introduction taking issue with the Dorgan-Snowe proposal.
AT&T's Tim McKone, vice president of federal relations, wrote that it is unfortunate that "precious time is being spent on legislation that will impede, not increase, America's standing" in the deployment of broadband.
Verizon's Peter Davidson, senior vice president for federal government relations, wrote that net neutrality should be named "net regulation" and that lawmakers are "trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist."
The bill aims to require broadband service providers to "not block, interfere with, discriminate against, impair or degrade" Internet traffic.
Dorgan said his push was sparked in part by comments Whitacre and other industry executives have made arguing that companies like Google should not be able to use communications networks to carry their content for free.
"There's going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they're using," Whitacre told BusinessWeek online in November 2005.