WASHINGTON — A fight in a House committee about online tolls offered a preview Wednesday of the larger battle brewing over the future of the Internet as Congress overhauls telecommunications rules for the first time in a decade.
Despite lobbying from online giants such as Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc., the House Energy and Commerce Committee rejected an amendment that would prohibit the owners of Internet networks from charging extra for preferential treatment of data.
Uncertainty over so-called Internet neutrality threatens to derail broader efforts to update the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which governs phones and cable television as well as Internet access. Some changes already are strongly opposed by the cable TV industry because they would allow phone companies to more easily offer TV services.
Opponents hope to stir up an online groundswell for strong Net neutrality rules.
"The public is starting to awaken to this great threat," Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) told his colleagues on the Republican-dominated committee shortly before they voted 34-22 against the neutrality amendment.
As more people use the Internet for data-heavy applications like video and music, the copper wires and fiber-optic lines that whisk information from computer to computer can get crowded. Big phone companies led by AT&T Inc. want to charge extra to guarantee fast and reliable delivery.
Critics contend that would turn the Internet into a virtual toll road. They say such preferential treatment violates the egalitarian spirit of the Internet and threatens to stifle innovation.
All but five of the committee's Democrats supported the amendment, along with one Republican, Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.). The Democratic support was heavier than in a subcommittee vote earlier this month.
The overall telecom bill handily passed the committee 42-12, with 15 Democrats supporting it.
Opponents said they were not giving up. With House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) backing Net neutrality rules, and some Republicans raising questions about the issue during a House Judiciary Committee hearing this week, opponents hope to slow the bill's momentum toward a full House vote in coming weeks.
Net neutrality could cause additional problems for telecom legislation in the Senate. Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is drafting a version of the bill and has said Net neutrality is the most contentious issue.
Supporters of the House telecom bill said it would make data discrimination illegal and argued that no company was levying tolls anyway. Committee Chairman Joe L. Barton (R-Texas), the main sponsor of the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006, promised to support a legislative fix if problems arose.
But leading Internet companies, including Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo, Mountain View, Calif.-based Google, Seattle-based Amazon.com Inc., San Jose-based Ebay Inc. and Microsoft Corp. in Redmond, Wash., do not want to take that chance. They have been pressing for strong rules to guarantee neutral treatment of data over the Internet. Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel Corp. joined the group Tuesday.
On Monday, a variety of grass-roots organizations -- including MoveOn.org Civic Action, Common Cause, Gun Owners of America and the Parents Television Council -- launched Savetheinternet.com to press for Net neutrality rules. The group said 500 blogs had linked to the site and more than 250,000 people had signed a petition to the Energy and Commerce Committee.
"It comes down to trust," Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, a coalition member, told reporters in a conference call.
The telecom bill would allow companies such as AT&T and Verizon Communications Inc. to more easily offer pay television services similar to cable. The bill would eliminate the need for companies to get permission from every community they want to serve by offering the option to obtain a national franchise instead of the local franchises that cable companies had to obtain.
That provision is part of an overall strategy by the companies to compete with cable in offering video, voice and Internet packages to consumers. Barton and other supporters of the bill say that making it easer for phone companies to compete with cable would help create incentives to build more broadband Internet services.
AT&T and Verizon also are pushing a bill in the California Legislature to allow for a statewide franchise.