A controversial net neutrality amendment has been defeated in a tied vote by a US Senate committee, but a fight on the issue is all but guaranteed in coming months on the full Senate floor.
The debate over whether the US needs net neutrality laws, which would prevent broadband network owners from charging for prioritized content and services over their own pipes, has become a mainstream issue in recent months.
Net neutrality proponents, including outspoken celebrities and some of the world’s largest Internet companies, such Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Amazon and eBay, say the absence of these laws would set up a two-tiered Internet. There would be a fast lane for priority content and a sluggish lane for everything else, they say.
But broadband operators argue they have the right to recoup investments in their networks, and point out that laws already exist so that the US Federal Communications Commission can fine any operator who unlawfully blocks content on their network.
Net neutrality supporters say non-prioritized content is more likely to be denigrated than blocked, and that denigration is more difficult to police.
Operators counter this argument by saying it would not be in their best interests to denigrate content. Plus, operators say, net neutrality laws would stymie the advent and fast delivery of high-bandwidth services such as video and VoIP.
In characteristic fashion, Republican politicians have tended to favor a more hands-off regulatory approach when it comes to net neutrality.
But the net neutrality amendment considered was bi-partisan. The Senate Commerce Committee voted 11-11 on amendment, which was drafted by Republican senator Olympia Snowe and Democratic senator Byron Dorgan.
While a tied vote procedurally means a defeat, it also means the issue is politically alive and raging.
In stark contrast, the House of Representatives recently overwhelmingly voted against a similar net neutrality amendment, by 269 to 152 votes, just a few weeks ago.
In other words, the tied Senate committee vote was certainly a defeat, but not a resounding one. The stalemate likely means a net neutrality amendment still has a chance to get tacked onto the broader telecom reform bill, called the Consumer’s Choice and Broadband Deployment Act, headed for the full Senate floor.
But whether such an amendment will stick in a Republican-dominated Senate remains to be seen.
All 10 Democrats in the subcommittee, as well as a solo Republican, voted for the net neutrality amendment, while the remaining 12 Republican senators voted against it.
Some Republican senators said net neutrality regulation would be premature and would potentially prevent the final passage of the broader bill. John Ensign, a Republican senator, called proposed net neutrality laws absolutely a poison pill.
But Democrat senator Ron Wyden countered, Without net neutrality protections, this bill is bad news for consumers and anyone who today enjoys unlimited access.
He likened passing a broader bill without net neutrality policy as akin to hurling a giant wrecking ball at the Internet.
The politicians heatedly debated the issue for nearly two hours.
A final resolution on the issue, however, may not be likely this year. Even if an amendment gets attached to the bill on the Senate floor, the bill would then need to be reconciled with the House bill, which currently does not have any net neutrality amendment.
These revised bills would then need to be passed again, before the President puts his signature to any potential new law.