WASHINGTON — Olympia J. Snowe is an unlikely Internet heroine.
The 59-year-old Republican senator from Maine isn't among the 170 Capitol Hill lawmakers who occasionally meet as part of the Congressional Internet Caucus. Her home state has no major technology company headquarters. In fact, she cops to not even being proficient at surfing the Web.
But Snowe has emerged as one of the key leaders in a legislative battle over toll lanes on the Internet.
Bucking her own party leadership, she has championed the push by Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp. and other Internet giants to prohibit phone and cable TV companies from charging websites for faster delivery of their data. The issue, known as network neutrality, threatens to kill a wide-ranging telecommunications bill that Senate leaders hope to pass this fall.
The legislation would make it easier for phone companies such as Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc. to offer TV service. Supporters say the ability to package voice, video and data would encourage phone companies to spend more on their networks. They say cable TV companies would be forced to do the same, with the increased competition lowering bills and expanding high-speed Internet access nationwide.
At least that's the hope.
Snowe acknowledges that Maine desperately needs more broadband access, but says those lines won't be worth much if network operators can dictate whose data flows through them -- and at what speed.
Without new regulations, she fears that phone and cable executives would create an Internet class system. Wealthy companies would pay to send video and other data-heavy applications on the Internet's fast lane, she said, while start-ups would be relegated to something that resonates with a lifelong Maine resident -- an online dirt road.
"We don't want to curtail the innovation that has emerged on the Internet," Snowe said. "We want to continue to encourage and nurture and cultivate that innovation and entrepreneurial spirit."
Small companies are important to Snowe, who chairs the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee. The online fates of those companies, not Internet giants, have motivated her push for anti-discrimination regulations, she said.
"The Googles and Yahoos will take care of themselves," Snowe said. But small entrepreneurs looking to launch innovative Web services, such as YouTube, would be at the mercy of phone and cable companies, who could charge "a mighty fee" for fast content delivery, she said.
Snowe and Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) have sponsored legislation to prevent broadband providers from charging companies for preferential treatment of content. The pair failed in a tie vote in the Senate Commerce Committee in June to add the prohibitions to the telecommunications bill.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and other top Republicans strongly oppose the anti-discrimination regulations, arguing that they would prevent phone and cable companies from recouping the costs of expanding their networks.
Some online activists praised Snowe for a forceful and plain-spoken speech advocating for anti-discriminatory regulations during the committee's deliberations.
"This is a little more rocket science than a lot of the other issues they work on, but I've been extremely impressed by her articulateness," said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a digital rights advocacy group that supports the regulations.
Eschewing technical descriptions, Snowe focuses on the effect on average Web users if phone and cable companies get their way.
"Consumers will have all the choices and selection of a former Soviet Union supermarket," she told her committee colleagues. "They'll have access to that supermarket, but what will be on the shelves will be limited and dismal."
Snowe's 15-minute speech didn't deliver victory for her and Dorgan, but it still had an effect. Stevens responded with a rambling rebuttal in which he called the Internet "a series of tubes." The statement has been roundly ridiculed online, fueling opposition to Stevens' bill.
With most Senate Democrats insistent that the telecom bill must contain the anti-discrimination regulations, Snowe and Dorgan appear to have enough support to block the legislation this year unless a deal is struck.
Snowe's views put her in a difficult but not unusual position -- at odds with the Senate's Republican leadership. A two-term moderate, Snowe has opposed her party on the size of tax cuts and efforts to privatize Social Security. That doesn't hurt her in Maine, said Chris Potholm, a government professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.
"The Maine voter has been conditioned to like independent candidates who stand up to their party and their president," he said.