Call it a battle for the future of the Internet.
As the Senate takes up the first overhaul of the nation's telecommunications laws in a decade, this week's debate will pitch one of the most unlikely lineups in recent political history against an entrenched industry lobby.
On one side: the big phone companies and cable providers, who want Congress to help them speed up the move into the video market and keep government regulation at a minimum. It's one of the most well-funded and experienced industry groups on Capitol Hill.
On the other side: those who use their services, who want Congress to make sure that the Internet does not become a fast lane for those who can pay – and a dirt road for those who can not. The Save the Internet Coalition includes Google Inc., Amazon.com, Microsoft, and eBay, thousands of bloggers, and more than 700 groups. It's one of the most diverse coalitions ever to lobby a bill.
At stake is whether the Baby Bells and cable companies can charge more for fast, reliable service or "discriminate" against online competitors. Groups ranging from the Christian Coalition, Gunowners of America, and Moveon.org – which are bookends on most other issues – want the government to ensure "network neutrality."
This week, the Senate Commerce Committee marks up its version of this bill. A draft released Monday includes a new Internet Consumer Bill of Rights, including a change to the Federal Communications Commission to "preserve the free flow of ideas and information on the Internet" and to "promote public discourse."
Groups lobbying for guarantees of network neutrality say that doesn't go far enough. "Despite that list of protections, there is no protection from discrimination by telephone or cable companies in favor of companies in which they have a financial interest or receive extra payments," says Art Brodsky, spokesman for Public Knowledge, an advocacy group that works in telecommunications and intellectual property issues.
"It doesn't give the egalitarian access we have now. Any time you see the Christian Coalition and Moveon.org agreeing on anything, you know something important is on the line," he adds.
In the run-up to the Commerce Committee markup on Thursday, groups are stepping up their lobbying. Last week, the Christian Coalition and Moveon.org delivered petitions with more than 1 million signatures to Senate offices.
Meanwhile, the Bells and cable companies are filling inside-the-Beltway newspapers with full-page ads, by coalitions such as Hands Off the Internet, that argue against "legislating massive new regulations" that they say will stifle Internet growth and innovation.
It's an issue that cuts across party lines. The House passed its version of telecommunications reform June 8, after rejecting a Democratic proposal to establish network-neutrality requirements for broadband providers. The proposal, which barred blocking, impairing, degrading, or discriminating against lawful content, was rejected by 211 Republicans and 58 Democrats.
Now the focus shifts to the Senate, where a bipartisan coalition led by Sens. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine and Byron Dorgan (D) of North Dakota is calling for stronger language on net neutrality in the bill.
"As we read this bill, broadband operators will still be able to create a two-tiered Internet system, whereby people who pay more get faster and better service. Everyone else has to settle for the slow lane. That's not what made the Internet so revolutionary, and that's what needs to be preserved," says Barry Piatt, a spokesman for Senator Dorgan.
In earlier drafts of the Senate bill, Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska, who chairs the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, called only for an annual FCC study of the issue, with the promise that Congress would address any problems that develop.
"The FCC would conduct an annual study to look into net neutrality and see if any blocking is occurring. Then, Congress would act immediately," says Aaron Saunders, a spokesman for the Senate Commerce Committee.
In fact, there's nothing simple about net neutrality, critics say. The Snowe- Dorgan bill would trigger "lengthy and very cumbersome efforts by the FCC," said Mike McCurry of Hands Off the Internet at a debate at George Washington University on Friday.
For many lawmakers in rural areas, the concern is that, despite the promises, their constituents will find themselves on a slower Internet track.