With just over a month to go before the Federal Communications Commission votes on new regulations for the Internet, rhetoric is heating up from both sides of the Net neutrality debate. At stake is whether Internet service will be regulated like a public utility -- a move backed by Net neutrality advocates and tech firms like Netflix and Etsy, but opposed by cable and telecom giants like Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner Cable.
During the public comment period on the issue last year, the FCC fielded a record-breaking 4 million-plus comments on the matter, with the sentiment overwhelmingly in favor of utility-like regulation and against the possibility of Internet "fast lanes" for those willing to pay for speedier content delivery. The scale of support has prompted some former opponents to change their tactics ahead of the FCC's vote on Feb. 26.
In fact, the latest proposal to protect Net neutrality is coming from an unlikely source: Congressional Republicans, who now hold the majority in both the House and the Senate. A Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing set for Wednesday and led by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., is expected to tackle the topic of "Protecting the Internet and Consumers through Congressional Action."
'Act without Delay'
In a statement last week announcing the hearing, Thune said the forum would provide "an opportunity to discuss and gather input from experts on ways Congress can focus on a solution that avoids saddling the Internet with an arcane regulatory framework designed for the monopoly phone era."
Thune has laid out 11 "principles for bipartisan rules in the Internet Age." These would prohibit Internet service providers from blocking or throttling traffic or offering prioritized service for pay -- all of which long have been advocated by backers of Net neutrality. However, the Republican plan would also classify broadband Internet as an information, rather than utility-like, service and would expressly limit the FCC's regulatory powers over the Internet.
In a joint statement in response to the Republican proposal, Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Al Franken of Minnesota and Cory Booker of New Jersey said: "We appreciate that the Republican bill also recognizes that net neutrality principles should apply regardless of the technology used to connect to the Internet....But unfortunately, the bill as currently drafted would dramatically undermine the FCC's vital role in protecting consumers and small businesses online by limiting its enforcement and rulemaking authorities in this critically important area. Further, the Republican bill would severely curtail the FCC's ability to promote the deployment of broadband service."
The statement ended, "The Commission should act without delay."
President Obama was also expected to weigh in on the matter during his State of the Union address Tuesday night. The president last year came out in support of Net neutrality and is also calling for greater efforts to expand access to broadband Internet services across the U.S.
Keeping the Pressure On
Shortly after the new Congress came into session earlier this month, Leahy and Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., reintroduced a bill from last year that would prohibit "fast lane" prioritization by Internet service providers. That legislation is called the Online Competition and Consumer Choice Act.
In the meantime, Net neutrality advocates are working to keep pressure on elected officials in Washington. The BattleForTheNet.com campaign -- led by Demand Progress, Fight For The Future, Free Press Action Fund and Reddit -- is seeking to encourage "tens of thousands" of phone calls to Congress in favor of Internet reclassification.
"Millions of Americans have spoken out, and the FCC is poised to give us the real Net neutrality rules we need," said Free Press Action Fund President and CEO Craig Aaron. "Congress has already put in place the bipartisan legal framework that would make this a reality. The FCC now just needs to act by reclassifying Internet access under Title II."