(AFP) - Congress has plunged into a multi-million-dollar debate over Internet usage fees that are feared by computing giants like Google and Microsoft and championed by the phone companies.
Opponents of the new usage toll -- predominantly the IT heavyweights -- demand nothing less than "Internet neutrality" where all traffic remains free in the spirit of democratic usage and access, reports Trend.
But telephone giants like Verizon, AT and T and cable TV provider Comcast argue that opponents of the fee are standing in the way of progress since the charges would cover faster Internet access, and are waging their own "hands off the Internet" campaign. "It would be the first time content is dictated by network owners," said Republican Senator Olympia Snowe.
"Our goal is to preserve the Internet as it is and to prevent restricted access," Snowe said.
She worries that unless Congress intervenes, the Internet will one day start to operate the way cable television does in the United States, where providers decide on the content of specific packages depending on the subscription price.
Snowe, who defends the "Internet neutrality" camp, is supported by the main content providers like Google, eBay and Amazon, which all feel threatened by the new pricing scheme.
Some argue the Internet would have never blossomed so much and so fast if price restrictions had been introduced in the past.
"There are some out there who will inevitably ask the question: But why shouldn't Google pay? Google certainly has a very large market cap and presumably could afford to pay," said lawmaker Ed Markey.
"But that is precisely the wrong question to ask," added Market, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee.
"The question to ask is whether Larry Page and Serge Brin (of Google) could have afforded to pay circa 1998, whether chief of Yahoo Jerry Yang could have afforded to pay a broadband behemoth circa 1995, whether Marc Andreessen, the founder of Netscape, could have afforded to pay anyone anything circa 1994," Markey said.
To guarantee equal access, Markey is supporting a bill amendment that would make it illegal for a broadband network provider to "block, impair, degrade, discriminate against, interfere with the ability of any person to use a broadband connection" for the Internet.
Snowe and Markey are backed particularly strongly by special interest groups that rely on the Internet as the main source for disseminating their message, especially those on the religious right.
On the other side, the large telecommunications companies -- supported by some consumer organizations -- say they want to introduce the equivalent of multilane highways for the Internet.
Certain bandwidths would be reserved for specific users, public or private, to avoid Internet congestion that supporters of a fee warn may become inevitable.
For better future speed, expensive modernization work would be required, and broadband providers would need the financial reward this undertaking would require for them to take part, supporters of the change argue.
After months of wrangling between lobbyists and lawmakers, the debate has finally landed in Congress as part of a broader telecommunications reform project.
But the House of Representatives refused to breach "Internet neutrality" earlier this month and the Senate also appears reticent.
"We provide that the antitrust laws apply to communications, period," said Republican Senator Ted Stevens. "So if there's any antitrust activity, let them fight it in court."
The Senate is expected to adopt the telecommunications reform legislation this week, with or without the Internet amendment.