Back in April, Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D-Tex.), a member of the House Commerce Committee, proposed an amendment to the telecom legislation that would have required the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to study the "preferential pricing practices" of top Internet search engines and e-commerce companies.
It was a classic diversionary move from AT&T, whose headquarters Gonzalez represents. Attack the attackers. It's no coincidence that Google, Yahoo!, Amazon and Microsoft, four of the stalwarts in the coalition to enact Net Neutrality, have search engines.
Gonzalez's amendment lost that day, but the talking point lingers. It came up last week in a debate at George Washington University when Mike McCurry, fronting for the Bells, trotted out the argument in a debate with Paul Misener of Amazon. Paul reasonably responded that search engines are a destination for consumers, who have a choice. Broadband access is a whole different issue, and many consumers, including Paul, don't have a choice of providers.
The issue of search engine neutrality has come up time and again on Capitol Hill, as the telco forces have done their work well in keeping the issue alive. Now, with the Senate Commerce Committee poised to consider amendments to the telecom bill from Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the search engine issue has been raised again.
This time it's in the form of an amendment from Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). To be fair, we're not entirely sure he's serious about it, as the penalties for violating that section, and only that section of the amendment would be $5 million and a year in the slammer. DeMint's amendment says it would be unlawful to "prioritize or give other preferential or discriminatory treatment in the methodology used to determine Internet search results based on advertising or other commercial agreement with a third party."
Another part of the amendment would make it illegal to "refuse to make content, applications, or services available on nondiscriminatory terms and conditions and with equivalent quality to all end users on the Internet free of any surcharge on the basis of the broadband network used to access such content, applications, or services." Other parts deal with sharing of storage capacity and preferences for content on the basis of a browser, operating system, or provider.
One good part of the amendment would make it illegal to "prioritize or otherwise enhance the delivery of content, applications, or services on the Internet using caching or other means without making such prioritization or enhancement available to another provider of content, applications, or services free of surcharge."
Now, taken together, all of these provisions constitute what might be called an extreme view of Net Neutrality. I don't know for certain, but I suspect that's the point DeMint is trying to make - that Net Neutrality is ridiculous as we try to "regulate" every aspect of the provision of services. He included the search engine provisions as an opener to catch everyone's attention and went on from there.
We clearly disagree on the issue of search eingines, although we believe Net Neutrality regulation would be quite minimal and unobtrusive, preserving the non-discrimination principles that existed for 70 years and allowed the Internet to grow and to flourish. Those contrast sharply with, say, the broadcast flag and audio content control sections of the bill. Those would have the government regulate the design all consumer electronics.
I haven't seen all the amendments-to-amendments that have been submitted to the Committee. There were more than 200 amendments put in on the bill. Perhaps someone should propose eliminating the search-engine provision from DeMint's amendment while approving the rest. That would make for an interesting time.