Draft legislation from the U.S. Congress would create a new network neutrality law but would prohibit the U.S. Federal Communications Commission from making its own rules prohibiting broadband providers from selectively slowing Web traffic.
The draft bill, published on NationalJournal.com, would hold mobile broadband providers to a less stringent net neutrality standard than wired carriers.
The bill, authored by Democrats including House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, would prohibit wired broadband providers from "unjustly or unreasonably" discriminating against legal Web traffic, but would not apply that prohibition to mobile providers. The bill would prohibit both wired and mobile providers from blocking consumer access to websites and from blocking legal websites.
Mobile carriers have argued that net neutrality rules shouldn't apply to them because of the limited bandwidth on their networks.
The legislative proposal is similar in some ways to a net neutrality plan released in August by Google and Verizon Communications. Like the Google and Verizon plan, the Waxman draft would allow the FCC to fine broadband providers up to US$2 million for violating net neutrality rules, but the Waxman proposal would not take away the rulemaking authority of the FCC.
The Google and Verizon plan, criticized by many net neutrality advocates, would require the FCC to enforce net neutrality principles on a case-by-case basis.
The new draft won praise from some groups that have opposed the FCC's efforts this year to create formal net neutrality rules. Waxman's bill would prohibit the FCC from reclassifying broadband as a common-carrier service subject to increased regulation by the agency.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has proposed reclassifying broadband from being a largely unregulated service. That move came after a U.S. appeals court ruled earlier this year that the agency did not have the authority to enforce informal net neutrality principles after Comcast slowed its customers' access to the BitTorrent peer-to-peer service.
An FCC spokeswoman declined to comment on the draft bill, as did a spokesman for Public Knowledge, a digital rights group pushing for stronger net neutrality rules.
Scott Cleland, chairman of the broadband carrier-backed NetCompetition.org, praised the House draft.
"This House Democrat draft signals to the FCC Democrat majority loud and clear that House Democrats do not support the radical ... proposal to regulate broadband Internet networks as 1934 common carrier telephone networks," he said in an e-mail. "This legislation proposes a sensible resolution and workable alternative to this destructive polarizing issue that is serving no one who seeks an open Internet that works, grows and innovates without anti-competitive concerns."
The draft includes some "positive elements," but also raises some concerns, added Randolph May, president of the free-market think tank, the Free State Foundation.
The bill's December 2012 expiration date would allow Congress to focus on broader telecom law reform, May said. But he questioned the bill's prohibition on content discrimination.
"If interpreted too rigidly by the FCC, this legacy common carrier-type restriction can inhibit development of new, differentiated services in response to evolving consumer demand," he said. "I think any discrimination prohibition should explicitly require a showing of consumer harm as a prerequisite to any agency remedial action."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.