The Politics of Net Neutrality

Cyberlaw

On Tuesday a Senate net neutrality bill was introduced by Sens. Olympia Snowe and Byron Dorgan. It’s mostly the same as the one they introduced last year, but with Democrats in control of Congress it has a better chance of being passed.

It seems to be good bill as far as it goes. According to Harold Feld’s excellent analysis (via Susan Crawford), the bill allows for some degree of network management and prioritization (e.g., all VOIP packets can be treated a certain way, but VOIP packets from a particular source can’t be singled out) and for broadband providers to charge customers–but not third parties–for certain extra options. One particularly interesting update from last year’s bill is a change that would prevent companies from claiming the privileges of being both a cable service and a broadband service simultaneously. In other words, it would not have allowed the terms of the recent AT&T merger under which certain services were exempt from the agreed-upon net neutrality provisions (see Prof. Crawford’s take on the problem with that merger). (For more details, Feld’s article is highly recommended.)

But where the story gets interesting is in the politics.

First, as the New York Times observes, there will be a lot of money being thrown around on all sides. This battle will pit huge telcos like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast against huge Internet companies like Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft. Of note is that consumer advocacy groups are combining forces to support the legislation with Google and Microsoft–not exactly companies with a reputation for sticking up for the little guy.

Next, according to the Times article, the Congressional split is also largely along party lines, Democrats primarily for the legislation and Republicans primarily against it. Co-sponsor Olympia Snowe is so far the only Republican to have expressed support for the bill. Partisan politics will probably play a big role.

Finally, there may be Presidential campaign implications. Feld notes that both Hilary Clinton and Barak Obama have come out early in support if the bill. In fairness, they both supported last year’s bill as well, but seeing them both jump out on this issue so early suggests that it may remain a big issue for some time.

Will this attention and star power help the bill pass more quickly or less? Hard to say. Let’s hope, however, that the extra hoopla won’t prevent Congress from passing the legislation based on its merits instead of on political posturing.

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