The future of the Internet is in the hands of U.S. Congress members, as they are expected to consider a bill this week that would allow certain websites to load faster than others.

Passed by a 42 to 12 vote in the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week, the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006 would also allow cable companies to compete for the power to deploy its Internet services to the public.

COPE is a mark-up of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and would create a national cable franchising option for cable providers, such as AT&T and Verizon, which would allow them to compete with local providers.

According to AT&T spokesperson Michael Balmoris, the company supports the bill and its aim to encourage more competition and choice for consumers.

"[U]pdating the nation's out-dated franchise laws will benefit communities not only by bringing video choice, but through the broader deployment of high-speed broadband service by companies like AT&T that plan billion dollar network upgrades," Balmoris said in an e-mail.

As AT&T and other major cable providers laud the bill as a measure to ensure a fair marketplace, others have raised concerns the bill would create a monopoly and discourage equal access.

The controversial bill would allow some companies' web pages to load faster than others based on the amount of protection money paid to service providers. It would also, in turn, give service providers the ability to choose the areas in which they offer service.

Google's Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf urged committee members to proceed with caution in a letter submitted to Congress.

"My fear is that, as written, this bill would do great damage to the Internet as we know it," Cerf said. "Enshrining a rule that broadly permits network operators to discriminate in favor of certain kinds of services and to potentially interfere with others would place broadband operators in control of online activity."

Network neutrality, otherwise known as the Internet's First Amendment, currently prohibits discrimination among communication network providers when transmitting content to users.

Advocacy groups have joined together in opposition of COPE, arguing the bill would damage the First Amendment ethics of the Internet.

The MoveOn media reformation advocacy group said if network neutrality were to be abandoned, many Internet users would be affected.

According to an e-mail sent by MoveOn.org Civic Action Team member Eli Pariser, the bill would hurt consumers.

"A company like Comcast could slow access to iTunes, steering you to a higher-priced music service that it owned," the e-mail said. "Companies could pay Internet providers to guarantee their online sales process faster than competitors with lower prices — distorting your choice as a consumer."

Another online advocacy group, SavetheInternet.com Coalition, kicked off its campaign last week to ensure the protection of Internet freedom.

The Coalition is advising public involvement and states on their website that the battle is not only between corporations, but also Internet users.

According to Christopher Rabb — founder of Afro-Netizen.com, one member of the SavetheInternet.com Coalition — allowing major cable providers to control Internet access "is bad policy made in bad faith."

"Gutting Network Neutrality will have dire effects on all users — and a disproportionately negative impact on African Americans and other under-served communities," Rabb said in a release.

The unnumbered bill is sponsored by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas; Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.; Rep. Charles Pickering, R-Miss.; and Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill.

"[AT&T] commend[s] these lawmakers for their overwhelming support and vision to bring cutting-edge technology and services to American consumers," Balmoris said.

The COPE Act is currently pending a vote by the full House and Senate.