These are treacherous days for Net Neutrality. Though the FCC has scheduled a vote on new rules for Feb. 26 — and is signaling it will go our way — opponents in Congress are scrambling to derail the process.
This week both the House and Senate held hearings to debate whether Congress should take up legislation — drafted by some of the Internet’s worst enemies — that would undermine the FCC’s ability to protect Internet users.
The right choice was as clear after the hearings as it was before: Congress should back off and let the FCC do its job.
Recently we’ve discussed our concerns about the rumored “Title X” and other legislative efforts aimed at sidestepping Title II reclassification, and these hearings were Congress’ first step down this dangerous path. The hearings focused on companion bills from House Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.).
Until recently, both chairmen opposed Net Neutrality, calling such protections “unjustified” and a “solution in search of a problem.” Yet just when the FCC is on the verge of reclassifying, they’ve had a change of heart.
Although the bills would prohibit some of the worst Net Neutrality violations — blocking, throttling and paid prioritization — the protections are brittle and narrow, with too many loopholes. The bill would also prohibit the FCC from reclassifying and strip the agency of its power to adopt and enforce new rules. The agency needs this kind of flexibility to protect consumers in a rapidly changing ecosystem.
During the House hearing, National Hispanic Media Coalition Executive Vice President Jessica Gonzalez delivered strong testimony on the importance of the open Internet to everyday people. The open Internet, she said, has become “a crucial tool for all people to share their stories, engage in our democracy, participate in our economy, and become better-informed members of our society.”
Gonzalez argued that the proposed bill would “strip our country’s expert communications agency of authority to protect consumers on the communications platform of the 21st century and pour cement on the still vast digital divide.”
Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson — representing the interests of small online businesses — noted that “without the incredible power of the free and open Internet we would not be where we are today." He further explained that any new barriers Internet service providers could impose would threaten Etsy sellers, the vast majority of whom are women business owners.
Industry special interests also weighed in. Wireless lobbyist Meredith Attwell Baker — a former FCC commissioner — peddled the false claim that Title II would dampen investment (despite last week’s statement to the contrary from Sprint).
Meanwhile, Michael Powell — the former FCC chairman turned top cable-industry lobbyist — supported the legislation … legislation that would let his current employers call the shots on the future of the Internet.
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Net Neutrality advocates like Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) were on hand to explain why tying the FCC’s hands in its efforts to protect American consumers and deploy broadband access is a bad idea.
“On the one hand the proposal says it will prohibit ‘fast lanes’ — but under ‘specialized services,’ a loosely defined term, broadband providers can give themselves prioritized service, and the FCC will have no power to define this,” Eshoo said. She added that the legislation “carries an enormous bias against [FCC] enforcement, which in turn doesn’t give consumers a leg to stand on.”
Ranking Member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) also delivered a strong statement in support of FCC action, noting that Americans have been without Net Neutrality protections for over a year. “The time for the FCC to act is now,” Pallone said.
Not everyone was on our side. Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) made his views crystal clear, proclaiming “I’m a paid-prioritization guy,” and explaining he would protect Net Neutrality only if dragged “kicking and screaming.”
Later in the day the Senate weighed in when the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation considered its companion bill.
Sen. Thune opened the hearing with an endorsement of legislative action. He drew fire from senators questioning the wisdom of eliminating the FCC’s role in protecting the open Internet.
“Congress need not move forward before the FCC,” said Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). “The stakes are too high.”
Internet champion Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) came out swinging, describing the crucial programs and protections Americans would lose without Title II reclassification. He pointed to the Universal Service Fund, critical privacy protections, and competition, in addition to real nondiscrimination Net Neutrality rules.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) questioned the witness from the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, a supporter of the bill, on the wisdom of removing the FCC’s authority to protect the rights of minority and underserved communities. Booker defended the federal government’s long history of stepping in to protect civil rights.
Without such measures, Booker said, “I wouldn’t be here.”
It was a long day on the Hill. While opponents of the open Internet tried their best to push their new proposal, at the end of the day the bill had less traction, with enough members seeming to see the bill for what it really is: fake Net Neutrality that won’t protect Internet users. And the message to the FCC was clear: move forward without delay.