A new “net neutrality” bill is on its way towards Congress, one which seeks to reinstate the free and open nature of the net – something that has been under fire in recent years. And one week ago, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Representative Doris Matsui of California took another decisive step when they announced that they will propose a bill to stop the Federal Communications Commission from allowing paid “fast lanes” on the internet.
In short, the proposed bill demands that the FCC to use whatever authority it sees fit to make sure that Internet providers don’t speed up certain types of content (like Netflix videos) at the expense of others (like e-mail). It wouldn’t give the commission new powers, but the bill – known as the Online Competition and Consumer Choice Act – would give the FCC crucial political cover to prohibit what consumer advocates say would harm startup companies and Internet services by requiring them to pay extra fees to ISPs.
And this past spring, after a federal court struck down the FCC’s existing net neutrality rules – which sought to ensure that ISPs didn’t discriminate against certain internet traffic – the commission proposed a new set of rules that has left many worried that ISPs could start charging web companies like Google and Netflix to deliver their content at faster speeds. Such an arrangement, these sources say, would squeeze out newer and smaller operations that can’t pay the fees.
Leahy and Matsui, both Democrats, are part of a widespread effort to ensure that all web companies, from Google to Netflix to Snapchat, are treated equally on the internet. On the other side, big-name internet service providers such as Comcast and Verizon are fighting to maintain control over how their networks operate. Caught in the middle are internet users who stand to lose if the ISPs create a new internet where its harder for certain services to reach them.
After holding a hearing on net neutrality in Vermont this past summer, Leahy came to an invariable conclusion:
Americans are speaking loud and clear. They want an Internet that is a platform for free expression and innovation, where the best ideas and services can reach consumers based on merit rather than based on a financial relationship with a broadband provider.
Though FCC chairman Ted Wheeler has claimed that internet fast lanes would be “commercially unreasonable” and therefore forbidden under its own proposed new rules, critics worry that the rules are too broad and would allow for loopholes as to what counts as commercially reasonable activity. Since the new rules were proposed, protests have taken place in front of the FCC’s offices, massive internet petitions have been mounted, and an epic rant was made by Last Week Tonight host John Oliver.
The new bill would provide a mandate regarding how the FCC deals with any sort of paid prioritization, but it wouldn’t reclassify providers. Also, the new bill would only apply to connections from internet service providers to customers’ homes, commonly referred to as last mile connections. It wouldn’t pertain to “peering”, the deals governing the ways that internet service providers connect with each other or with content providers like Netflix and Google.
Despite these limitations, Public Knowledge supports the proposed legislation. As vice president of government affairs Chris Lewis said in a statement:
This bill sends a clear signal to the FCC that fast lanes and paid prioritization could endanger the internet ecosystem as we know it. The reason we have seen so much financial investment and innovation online is because the playing field for new entrepreneurs is level. As the FCC continues to evaluate new net neutrality rules, it’s important they understand that Americans want an internet that everyone can succeed in, not just the companies with enough money to pay a toll to ISPs.
The bill may face serious challenges, however. Republicans control the House and have proposed their own bill to block the FCC from reclassifying internet service providers. In this respect, net neutrality is dividing lawmakers along partisan lines, and Republicans are not expected to support the proposed Leahy-Matsui bill. But in theory, a bipartisan agreement could be reached, especially since the Leahy-Matsui bill leaves reclassification off the table.
And given the level of public pressure on law makers and regulators to protect the function of the internet, it’s too early to count this or any other legislation that addressing the issue of neutrality out. Network neutrality has become a hot button issue, much like domestic surveillance and data collection. And the people are sending a clear message: they want the internet to be a level playing field and won’t rest until the rules clearly reflect that.