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The opening shots were fired on Capitol Hill on Tuesday in a legislative battle between the US telecommunications and internet industries that both sides warned could undermine innovation and consumer choice on the internet.

Vint Cerf, one of the early pioneers of internet technology and now chief internet evangelist at Google, called on Congress to pass a law preventing telecoms companies from discriminating between the internet services that are carried over their networks.

But representatives of the dominant US telecoms groups said the high level of investment needed to extend broadband networks meant they should have the power to charge internet companies fees in return for guaranteeing a specific level of service.

The dispute over what has become known as “net neutrality” has erupted over proposals from some of the telecoms companies to start charging extra fees. They argue that to guarantee a high level of service, they need to allocate more bandwidth and give priority to services such as internet video and voice-over-internet calls, and so should be able to charge more.

“Public policy must enc­our­age and reward investment in networks,” said Walter McCormick, the head of the US Telecoms Association, at a hearing yesterday of the Senate commerce, science and transportation committee. Telecoms companies would not use discriminatory pricing to “block, impair or degrade content, applications or services”, he added.

Under a policy adopted by Michael Powell, former Federal Communications Commission chairman, US regulators have until now prevented telecoms groups from blocking specific internet services that pass over their networks. However, the regulations do not deal with special pricing for guaranteed levels of service.

Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Stanford University, said that allowing telecoms companies to charge more for carrying certain internet services would mark a retreat from the past 40 years of US telecommunications policy. He and others compared the telecoms companies’ proposals to the creation of new commercial “speed lanes” on highways. They would degrade some services by reducing the capacity available to others, making it more difficult for start-up internet companies to find an audience.

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