After failing to amend a telecommunications reform bill last week, four US Democrats have introduced a free-standing bill aimed at preventing broadband carriers from discriminating against competing web content or services.

The bill, sponsored by Representatives Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Jay Inslee of Washington state, Anna Eshoo of California and Rick Boucher of Virginia, would create a net neutrality law banning phone and cable companies from charging websites for faster data transmission, or blocking their online competitors' content and services. Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, has introduced a similar bill in the Senate.

The four Democrats' amendment failed, on a vote of 34-22, largely along party lines, when the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved a wide-ranging telecom reform bill last week.

The Federal Communications Commission voted to deregulate DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) providers in August 2005, and backers of a net neutrality law say broadband providers could now charge internet tolls and slow down the web content of those who don't pay.

"We cannot allow telecommunications companies to hijack the internet," Inslee said in a statement. "After all, the beauty of the internet is its open architecture."

Public Knowledge, a group advocating for consumer rights online, praised the new House bill. "[The] legislation recognises that the cable and telephone companies are threatening to take over the internet, and that strong nondiscrimination policies are needed to prevent them from limiting consumer choice and favouring their own content and services," the pressure group president Gigi Sohn said.

Broadband providers have repeatedly said they will not block or impair their customers' access to competing web content or services, although some have talked about charging web sites extra for a faster tier of service.

The Democrats' bill comes a day after Republican Senator Ted Stevens and Democrat Daniel Inouye, introduced a telecom reform bill similar in some ways to the one that passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The Stevens bill would streamline the franchising requirements for telecom carriers looking to offer internet-based television services in competition with cable providers. The Stevens bill also demands the use of a broadcast flag anticopying system to protect digital video broadcasts, raising some opposition from fair use advocates in the US.

While the House bill endorses general net neutrality goals, the Senate bill would only instruct the FCC to study whether a net neutrality law is needed. Net neutrality advocates said the Senate bill fails to protect consumers against broadband providers that want to block or slow competing content or services.