A net neutrality bill in Congress has been delayed again, throwing the neutrality debate back into neutral at least until the 2010 elections are settled.

Democrat Congressman Henry Waxman, who introduced this bill and has been pushing for consumer-friendly regulation in this area for several years, now calls on the FCC to step up to the plate: "If Congress can't act, the FCC must."

In the red corner, there was much rejoicing: "Speaker Pelosi and President Obama have taken measures to control the health-care industry, the auto industry, the banking industry and the insurance industry," said Republican Rep. John Culberson. "It comes as no surprise that they attempt to control commercial activity over the Internet before they lose control of Congress."

Net neutrality really should be a battle between freedom-loving consumers and business-minded service providers. Content producers and information distributors from Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN) to Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) have traditionally sided with the consumers in their lobbying, while network operators including AT&T (NYSE: T), Level 3 Communications (Nasdaq: LVLT), and Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA) want nothing to do with new network regulations. But it has clearly become a highly politicized issue, fought over party lines more than issues.

Google has drawn heavy criticism from neutrality supporters for reaching across battle lines to produce a framework for regulation in cooperation with Verizon (NYSE: VZ), as if the olive branch somehow sullied Google's virginal image. Me, I see such nonpartisan collaboration as the only way to actually introduce legal protections for openness principles we today take for granted.

If left unchecked, network operators are likely to restrict, constrict, and devalue network traffic from competitors as it passes through their lines. Pay extra fees or become a second-class online citizen; the little guy with a brilliant e-business idea would be left out in the cold. The Google-Verizon proposal, which seemed to have a substantial influence over the now-frozen Congress bill, made some concessions to network demands but also brought Verizon a lot closer to accepting new network regulations than ever before. Baby steps are better than none at all.

So now the ball is back in the FCC's court until further notice. Will the Commission grab the bull by the horns and start acting tough? Somehow, I doubt it -- taking real action is becoming a political impossibility. Let's see if we can get any kind of legislation in place before the network guys start taking damaging liberties -- again.

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