Democrats Skeptical That GOP Net Neutrality Bill Will Protect Open Internet

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Congressional Democrats expressed a willingness to engage with Republicans on their proposed net neutrality legislation, but during a series of hearings on Wednesday, they expressed concerns that the bill would still leave loopholes and render the FCC unable to quickly act on complaints.

“With an ever-evolving Internet, we need a regulator who is not frozen in time,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which held a hearing on the issue.

Nevertheless, Nelson said that he was willing to continue discussions with Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the chairman of the committee, who along with other Republicans unveiled a draft bill last week.

Where once Republicans were resistant to any net neutrality legislation, now they are proposing rules of the road for the Internet that would ban Internet providers from blocking or slowing content, or from charging sites for speedier access to their customers. Their legislation also would apply to both wired and wireless Internet service providers.

But the legislation is also designed to stave off FCC action. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has indicated that he is moving toward a proposal in which the FCC would reclassify the Internet as a Title II telecommunications service, a regulatory move designed to give the agency a more solid legal footing from which to impose Internet rules. He is expected to circulate a draft of his proposed rules next month, with a vote on Feb. 26.

The GOP bill, however, would prevent the FCC from reclassifying. 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. At a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on net neutrality earlier on Wednesday, Rep. 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. The FCC needs that authority to take action on another proposal, also coming up for a vote in February, to overturn state laws that prevent cities and other local governments from offering their own broadband service as competition to private providers.

The GOP bill “undermines FCC efforts to bridge the digital divide,” Jessica Gonzalez of the National Hispanic Media Coalition said at the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing.

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.

Paul Misener, vice president for global policy with Amazon, said that the legislation includes an exception for “specialized services” that could prove to be a “huge loophole.”

Nevertheless, the GOP proposal has changed the dynamics of the debate over net neutrality, a recognition on both sides of the aisle that some rules are needed. Internet providers like Comcast and AT&T, which in the past have been dismissive of a ban on paid prioritization, are supporting the GOP bill. Michael Powell, president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. and a former FCC chairman, expressed support, while Meredith Attwell Baker, president and CEO of The Wireless Assn., called the bill an “excellent start.”

Rep. 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. Polls have shown that majorities of Democrats and Republicans favor rules that would ban so-called “fast lanes” for sites that have the means to pay for speedier access.

The question now is whether the GOP legislation will advance before the FCC acts. Democrats expressed a desire to slow things down.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that it has taken the FCC “nearly 13 months to craft new rules … Congress cannot be expected to work it all out in 13 days.”