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Congress weighs rules of Net access

As the Senate debates Internet regulation this week, the big issue is equal access to services.

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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.

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