The debate continued over net neutrality on Capitol Hill today, with RIAA chairman/CEO Mitch Bainwol weighing in on a bill that would set U.S. broadband policy and mandate an FCC study.

Bainwol, testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on
Telecommunications and the Internet, said that it was "a touch premature" to
pass the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008.

The bill, introduced in February by Subcommittee chairman Edward Markey (D-Mass.), would establish a federal broadband policy to, among other things, maintain the freedom to use broadband networks in a lawful manner without unreasonable interference or discrimination by network operators. It would also direct the FCC to conduct a proceeding, as well as public summits, to assess competition, consumer protection and consumer choice issues relating to broadband Internet access services. This could include the addition of quality-of-services charges for certain Internet applications and service providers.

While the bill seems simple, it is at the center of the very controversial subject of so-called "net neutrality." There have been claims that some Internet service providers (ISPs) block or control consumers' access to certain applications or content, like very large digital files. There have also been claims that some ISPs promote their own content -- thus discriminating against -- other content.

In responding to questions, Bainwol said that the current piracy situation in the music industry "comes close to crisis." But, recognizing the importance of the digital world, added, "Our plea is that we approach these issues with a sense of balance."

Bainwol applauded the bill for what he saw as "clearly and directly articulating that unlawful activity can be dealt with by network management," but said the private marketplace should work for solutions before legislation.

In a written statement submitted to the Subcommittee, Bainwol added, "If effective marketplace solutions cannot be reached soon, however, then government regulation may well be necessary..."

Walter McCormick, president/CEO of the U.S. Telecom Assn., testified against the bill, arguing that it includes terms that are ambiguous, such as "unreasonably" and "discriminatory." He said the ambiguity "will chill innovation, investment, broadband deployment and job growth." It would put industry expansion in limbo while the government argues over the meaning of words.

Steve Peterman, an executive producer of Hannah Montana and a member of the Writers' Guild of America West, supports the bill. He argued that network
operators should not be able to block content. He testified that due to media ownership and syndication rules, there has been greater consolidation of media resulting in seven conglomerates controlling nearly all information and content. As a result, he said, independent production companies have disappeared.

But indie companies and writers are now creating content for the Web, Peterman said. If the bill is not passed, he sees the ISPs as gatekeepers -- controlling content through their networks and leveraging that control to establish a fee system or to own the content. He believes that ISPs should not have the unilateral right to block access to legal Web sites without appropriate transparency.

Christopher Yoo, a University of Pennsylvania law professor, argued that any attempt to mandate access through legislation or regulations would become bogged down in controversy and litigation.

No further specific action was scheduled at this time for the bill.