The worlds of technology and politics are converging this week as the just-started 114th Congress considers new Net neutrality legislation ahead of an expected decision on the issue next month by the Federal Communications Commission. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, in the meantime, put in an appearance Wednesday at a different venue: the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Speaking at CES, Wheeler repeatedly hinted he favored reclassification of Internet broadband as a public utility, which would subject Internet providers to some of the same rules that govern phone companies. The so-called Net neutrality approach has drawn heavy fire from Internet service providers and Republicans who warn it will lead to burdensome regulation. Democrats, President Obama and consumer groups, on the other hand, have sided with maintaining Net neutrality.
Wheeler Hints at Neutrality Approach
Pressure has been mounting on Wheeler and the other commissioners to adopt new rules that would protect an open Internet from the possibility of "fast lanes" for those who could pay a premium. The agency fielded more than 4 million public comments -- a record -- on the issue late last year, with a large number of those expressing support for reclassifying Internet access as a utility-like, Title II service with greater regulatory authority.
The FCC chairman said Wednesday that over the last several months the narrative became " 'Wheeler and the president are pulling at opposite directions on this,' which made for good headlines but wasn't reality."
Ahead of the FCC's expected decision, Democrats in the newly convened Congress on Wednesday reintroduced a bill that would prohibit paid prioritization ("fast lane") agreements between broadband and content providers. That bicameral legislation -- introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) -- made a quick appearance ahead of rumors that Republicans, who now enjoy a majority in both houses, are looking to introduce their own bill on Internet regulation.
'This Is Really Important'
We reached out to both Leahy's and Matsui's offices to learn more about the timing of the introduction of the Democrats' bill, called the "Online Competition and Consumer Choice Act." The same legislation was introduced last year and ended the 113th Congress in the subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade.
"It's all very timely," said David Carle, a spokesman in Leahy's office. He added that the senator "speaks out about this very often and will continue to do so."
"This is really important," agreed Jonelle Trimmer, a spokeswoman in Matsui's office. She said the bill was reintroduced to reiterate support for Net neutrality, adding, "We're out there with something we feel strongly about."
The reintroduction also put the Democrats' version out ahead of a reported Republican version. Writing in "The Switch" blog in The Washington Post on Wednesday, Brian Fung reported that the Republican bill would prevent the FCC from regulating the Internet as a Title II utility-like service.
"By reintroducing legislation before a Republican version emerges, Democrats could keep Republicans from attracting liberals to their side," Fung noted.
'Candid Conversation' at CES
Fight for the Future, a pro-Net neutrality advocacy group, is calling the Republican bill a way to "backstab the Internet." The group's online petition to Congress warns, "If Congress enacts Title X, we'll lose Net Neutrality forever."
The group on Tuesday also launched a new tool, CallComcast.org, targeting one of the major cable companies that has opposed Title II reclassification.
Meanwhile, FCC Chairman Wheeler was meeting in an open one-on-one discussion at CES on Wednesday with Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronic Association, which organizes the Las Vegas show. Wheeler appeared unwilling to wait on Congress intervening on the Net neutrality issue.
"Clearly, we're going to come out with what I hope will be the gold standard," Wheeler said on stage. "And if Congress wants to come in and then say, 'Well, we want to make sure that this approach doesn't get screwed up by some crazy chairman that comes in,' " then those are legitimate issues, he said.