Net neutrality should be law

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Finally, some good news on net neutrality: To win FCC approval of its BellSouth acquisition, AT&T agreed to maintain a neutral internet network, treating all web traffic equally-for two years. But the clock is ticking, and so we repeat what we said on this page last March: Congress must act to protect net neutrality before AT&T gets a chance to change the rules.

AT&T made its net-neutral pledge and other concessions to resolve the Federal Communications Commission's deadlock over the BellSouth deal. The merger closed Dec. 29 after the two Democratic commissioners joined two Republicans in approving the deal. (The fifth commissioner, Republican Robert McDowell, a former telecom lobbyist, had recused himself.)

Net neutrality has been the rule since the advent of the web. Scrappy startups and established firms have equal access; winners emerge from brands that click with consumers. But AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon have floated the idea that sites should pay for speedy connections to consumers; entrepreneurial startups could be banished to the slow lane.

AT&T now has agreed "not to provide or to sell to internet content, application or service providers, including those affiliated with AT&T/BellSouth, any service that privileges, degrades or prioritizes" content.

The equality pledge ends in December 2008. It's clear the FCC's current leadership won't do more. Chairman Kevin Martin and fellow Republican Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate made clear their view in a joint statement: "The Democratic commissioners may have extracted concessions from AT&T ... [but this] does not mean that the commission has adopted an additional net-neutrality principle. We continue to believe such a requirement is not necessary."

Now it's up to the new Democratic Congress. Reps. Ed Markey, John Conyers and John Dingell have been strong advocates of net-neutrality legislation, with some GOP allies. In the Senate, Democrat Byron Dorgan and Republican Olympia Snowe may reintroduce legislation. It's time to make net neutrality the law of the land.
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