Republicans Solicit Feedback On Net Neutrality Legislation
Cable, wireless groups voice support for GOP’s net neutrality bill.
Congress held two hearings Wednesday to discuss net neutrality legislation, which supporters hope will preserve internet freedom while avoiding burdensome regulations. The Federal Communications Commission will vote on Feb. 26 on rules aiming to protect competition online by treating all website traffic equally, despite broad opposition from congressional Republicans who are proposing their own legislative version of net neutrality.A day after President Obama renewed his calls for a “free and open Internet” in Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, the new Republican-led Congress is set to open debate Wednesday for new legislation meant to preserve the controversial principle known as “net neutrality.” At issue is how the Internet should be regulated.
This week the center of gravity in the net neutrality debate shifts to Capitol Hill, where hearings in both chambers are pitting Democrats against Republicans over the future of the Internet. At the hearings, lawmakers from the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation solicited testimony from experts in the internet and telecommunications industries about the bill, which can still be revised before assuming its final form.
Should Internet providers like Comcast and Verizon be allowed to make “fast lanes” for content they want to prioritize, or should the government step in to ensure that providers treat all web content the same? Greg Walden of Oregon is chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, charged with keeping the House majority.(Photo: Cliff Owen, AP) The fight over net neutrality played out in a doubleheader of Congressional hearings on Wednesday with tech industry executives supporting and jabbing at Republicans’ newfound love of open Internet policies.
Obama has called for the FCC to craft net neutrality rules using some of the regulatory power it claims over phone companies through Title II of the Communications Act — a concept Republicans oppose as an unwarranted increase of government power. “I intend to protect a free and open Internet … so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world,” Obama said during his speech. In a House hearing in the morning, the key players who have supported the telecom industry told lawmakers that they favor keeping the Internet free from interference by Internet service providers, but labeling ISPs as public utilities would impose difficult burdens on their business. The commission is considering applying Title II to protect new rules against an anticipated lawsuit from a telecom like Verizon, said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. But a “discussion draft” of a bill floated by Republicans in Congress last week suggests that they are adjusting their stance – though critics say the move could ultimately do more harm than good.
Previously, many Republicans had called such net neutrality regulations “Obamacare for the Internet,” saying they were the invasion of big government onto the web (though such regulations had been in place from the Internet’s start). Now the FCC appears ready to put rules in place under a different section of the law that would treat broadband providers like regulated phone companies and other utilities. The liberal activist group Demand Progress calls it a “cynical ploy,” adding in an email that “in a town used to policy flip flops, this is a pirouette of Olympic caliber.” Today both houses of the new Republican Congress are holding hearings meant to lay the groundwork for a bipartisan network neutrality deal. Under this approach, ISPs would be prohibited from any attempts to give prioritization of faster speeds to their affiliates or to third parties willing to pay them for faster Internet lanes for their video or content.
Moreover, she asserted, the legislation is not necessary because “Rules based on Title II authority, with appropriate forbearance, will not impede investment, create new taxes, slow broadband adoption, or create additional litigation risk.” Former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, however, argued that the “sledge hammer of Title II” is not conducive to a policy of forbearance, and would “eventually cause collateral damage to America’s tech economy” regardless of regulators’ intentions. But a coalition of tech companies including Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and more than 100 others lobbied Congress in support of net neutrality. Republicans were left in the position of defending an industry that routinely ranks last in national consumer-satisfaction surveys. “By turning the FCC away from a heavy-handed and messy approach to regulating the Internet, this draft protects both consumers who rely on Internet services and innovators who create jobs,” said Sen. The draft bill signals that the conversation has shifted from contesting the need for net neutrality as a way to ensure reliable download speeds for websites and consumers to the argument that the FCC has no legal authority to enforce online competition. Network neutrality advocates worry that if ISPs start giving higher priority to content from big companies that pay them extra, startups and other small content providers could get squeezed out.
In the past, Republican lawmakers have generally sided with large ISPs, such as Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner Cable, and said new rules aren’t needed because competition and consumer demand would dictate how their services are sold. The Republican bill has met criticism from consumer protection advocacy group Fight for the Future, which claims the bill is an effort to “derail the FCC’s net neutrality efforts” in a way that would benefit the cable industry over consumers.
Broadband providers have warned that such a step risks burdening them with cumbersome regulation, stifling their investment in Internet upgrades, and some firms have already suggested that they would challenge the FCC in court. Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of global public policy, said the bill had some potential loopholes, such as an exemption for “specialized services,” that broadband providers could exploit to allow paid prioritization and other discriminatory behavior “The Internet is dynamic.
But they’ve been caught off guard by the visceral and overwhelmingly pro-net neutrality consumer reaction among their constituents, who see the issue beyond the political lines. Upton said in a statement ahead of a net neutrality hearing Wednesday in the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology that the bill would provide clear rules on Internet protection that would not hinder investment in broadband, unlike the FCC efforts. “Providers need certainty so they can move forward with their business models,” Upton said. “Without this certainty, innovation and investment suffer, and consumers lose.” But Democrats have questioned whether investment would be damaged if the FCC reclassified broadband as a utility, like a mobile phone company. Last May, Upton was describing network neutrality rules as a “solution in search of a problem.” Network neutrality supporters believe that in order to fully protect network neutrality, the FCC needs to declare broadband providers to be common carriers, an option known as reclassification. With the FCC seemingly ready to enact stringent rules that would adopt Title II, lawmakers proposed a new draft legislation late last week that, if passed, would replace the FCC as the guiding authority on net neutrality. But with Wheeler expected to propose aggressive rules that are much closer to what Obama asked for than what large Internet providers would prefer, Democrats have an incentive to not sign onto the GOP proposal before they’ve seen the FCC’s draft rules.
Greg Walden (R-Ore.) called such an FCC action the “nuclear option.” The GOP bill also would prevent the FCC from taking actions based on a provision of the 1996 Telecommunications Act that charged the agency with promoting adoption of broadband services. Others expressed concerns that the legislation, although banning such things as paid prioritization will still leave Internet providers with the ability to create a two-tiered Internet. Greg Walden, R-Ore. — would ban ISPs from offering paid prioritization for faster lanes and prohibit any attempts by ISPs to block or deliberately slow content. It’s “just like proscribed ‘paid prioritization,’ the only difference being that the content or service prioritized came from the broadband Internet access service provider itself, instead of a third party.” In January 2014, the U.S. That has alarmed large broadband providers and their allies in Congress, because it potentially opens the door to regulations that go far beyond network neutrality.
John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who called himself a “paid prioritization” guy in favor of light regulation — said that he has come around to recognize that government action is a reality. Ryan Radia, a network neutrality skeptic at the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, readily concedes that the GOP’s changing stance is “kind of a flip-flop,” but he says the shift is justified. Although we don’t know much about Pallone’s positions on telecom issues yet — some analysts have suggested he’s aligned more closely with industry — he signaled Wednesday that he’d resist efforts to undermine the FCC through the GOP legislation.
For example, Bergmayer worries that ISPs might harm competition by charging consumers different rates for different types of content — for example, charging customers extra fees when they download content from Netflix rather than Hulu. But under the Republican alternative, an aggrieved party would have to bring a complaint before the FCC, a process that could take years and might not provide protections to others harmed by the same ISP conduct.
Van Schewick and her Stanford University co-author Morgan Weiland offer an even more scathing assessment of the Republican proposal, detailing seven different ways the bill falls short of full protection for an open internet. They note that the law includes several vague terms that could create loopholes for undermining network neutrality and gives the FCC limited authority to close these loopholes.
And that means Republicans have little leverage. “It’s definitely useful that Republicans are willing to go on the record with support for some version of network neutrality,” Bergmayer says.
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