In an effort to advance the net neutrality debate in the US Congress, two groups have offered their own proposals to prohibit broadband providers from discriminating against competing internet content, while allowing providers to separate out part of their networks for specialised products.

Civil liberties advocacy group CDT (the Center for Democracy and Technology) and New Yorkers for Fair Use, comprised of businessmen and technology advocates, both released net neutrality proposals yesterday, two days before the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is set to debate the issue as part of a hearing to amend a wide-ranging communications bill.

The proposals differ in their approaches, but both would allow broadband providers such as AT&T and Comcast to separate part of their broadband pipes for services they or their partners offer. But on the public internet, broadband providers would be required to treat all content equally.

The CDT wants a "narrowly tailored" set of net neutrality rules, even though large broadband providers have questioned the need for new regulations, said Leslie Harris, CDT's executive director. Broadband providers have said there's no need for new rules because there's no evidence of them blocking or impairing competing content, but a lack of broadband competition makes for a "significant risk" of that happening, Harris said.

If Congress fails to now pass a net neutrality law, it will be difficult to come back later and force broadband providers to retroactively change their business plans if problems do occur, she said. "In our view, the internet is too important – the openness of the internet, the democratic platform it creates, the economic engine it creates – to take that level of risk," Harris added.

The CDT proposal would require broadband providers to treat all internet content and services equally. At the same time, the providers could experiment with private network services where they could make exclusive agreements with services such as broadband video, a practice objected to by some net neutrality advocates.

The CDT plan would allow Congress to monitor the internet for evidence of discriminatory treatment.

The second proposal, authored by Seth Johnson, a member of New Yorkers for Fair Use, would also allow providers to offer tiered services, but they would not be able to classify them as internet services if they discriminate against competing content.

Broadband services that divide content being sent over the internet would destroy the standards that are the foundation of the current internet, Johnson said. If broadband providers can set their own transport standards, the internet would stop being a public medium, he said.

Congress needs to clarify the meaning of internet connectivity, the Johnson group said in an email sent yesterday.

"In effect, under the present circumstances, the system of developing specifications, which involves the writing and review of formal documents known as RFCs, which has held since the beginning of the internet, would be tossed out by a few large providers and equipment manufacturers and replaced by corporate fiat," the group said. "IP-layer neutrality is not a property of the internet. It is the internet."