STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Cable and telephone companies won a victory in Congress yesterday. They want to charge different amounts of money for different tiers of Internet service. But a plan to block them from doing that was itself blocked.
Without such restrictions, many consumer advocates say the Internet will change from being an open, democratic network to a closed system, as NPR's Laura Sydell reports.
LAURA SYDELL reporting:
As a new telecommunications bill was being hammered out in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the debate picked up when Democratic Congressman Ed Markey proposed an amendment. To garner support for what he called network neutrality, he raised the specter of an open Internet transformed into a tightly controlled pipeline.
Representative EDWARD MARKEY (Democrat, Massachusetts): This amendment offers members a clear choice. It is a choice between favoring the broadband designs of a small handful of very large companies or safeguarding the dreams of thousands of inventors, entrepreneurs, and small businesses.
SYDELL: The telephone and cable companies want to start charging extra fees to individuals, non-profits, and businesses who want their content to reach consumers through fast-speed connections.
Markey and others say that means that less wealthy content providers will effectively be relegated to a dirt road, while the big companies are on the superhighway. Or, even worse, Democratic Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky thinks without some kind of protective language, the network providers could clamp down on political dialogue.
Representative JAN SCHAKOWSKY (Democrat, Illinois): I'm concerned about e-mails being blocked from advocacy groups. On all sides, we have one of the most vibrant, democratic discussions going on on every imaginable topic, right now, on the Internet.
SYDELL: Various consumer and online advocacy groups were backing the Markey amendment. So were big Internet companies like Yahoo, Microsoft, eBay, and Google. And it was those companies that opponents of the amendment had in mind.
As Republican Joe Barton, chair of the Commerce Committee, sees it, online companies have been getting a free ride on networks built by the cable and phone companies.
Representative JOE BARTON (Republican, Texas): And if they spend billions and billions of dollars to put these networks in place, they have the right to charge an enhanced fee for people who want to use those enhanced services.
SYDELL: Barton says the network providers will get financial incentives to build out more fast-speed pipes all around the country if they can charge extra.
Ultimately, Barton's view prevailed and the network neutrality amendment was defeated. The telecommunications bill will now go to the House floor for a vote.
In the next few weeks, the same issue will come up in the Senate, where network neutrality advocates have more bipartisan support.
Laura Sydell, NPR News.
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INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
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