Congress held two hearings Wednesday to discuss net neutrality legislation, which supporters hope will preserve internet freedom while avoiding burdensome regulations.
At the hearings, lawmakers from the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation solicited testimony from experts in the internet and telecommunications industries about the bill, which can still be revised before assuming its final form.
Net neutrality refers to the concept that internet service providers should not be allowed to either block legal content or prioritize certain types of content by charging fees for faster access speeds.
Although net neutrality has broad popular support in principle, there has been considerable debate over how it should be accomplished, with some advocating for government regulations while others are pushing for a more limited approach. (RELATED: Who Pays for Net Neutrality?)
Wednesday’s hearings, not coincidentally, came just over a month ahead of a planned vote by the FCC on whether to classify the Internet under Title II of the Communications Act, just like landline telephones, which critics say could open the door to price controls and other regulations that inhibit innovation.
Last year, President Obama threw his support behind the Title II approach, calling on the FCC to “implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality … while at the same time forbearing from rate regulation and other provisions less relevant to broadband services.” (RELATED: Obama Announces Support for Net Neutrality)
In an effort to prevent that outcome, Republicans unveiled the draft legislation last week, saying it would “provide clear rules of the road for open and unfettered access to the Internet,” while at the same time avoiding the “lengthy court battles that would surely come from the FCC’s proposed action.” (RELATED: GOP Net Neutrality Bill Could Preempt Internet Regulation)
Nearly all of the witnesses at the hearings expressed support for the principles of an open internet, but opinions about the draft legislation were more divided. Those representing internet service providers generally supported it, and representatives of online retailers and content providers tending to favor action by the FCC.
Meredith Attwell Baker, president and CEO of industry trade group The Wireless Association, told lawmakers she supports the bill, saying it gives Congress “the opportunity to provide the same regulatory stability for broadband as it did for all of mobility in 1993,” when it established a regulatory approach to mobile devices that protected consumers while promoting cost-cutting and innovation.
“The draft bill is an excellent start,” she declared. “And offers a reasonable path toward ensuring the preservation of an open Internet with real, enforceable requirements.”
Conversely, Jessica Gonzalez of the National Hispanic Media Coalition argued that, “the discussion draft suffers from a number of fatal flaws that could permanently debilitate the FCC and lead to disastrous unintended consequences.”
According to Gonzalez, the bill in its current form “blesses some forms of discrimination and strips the FCC of authority that could be used to achieve shared policy goals,” such as universal service and rural access.
Moreover, she asserted, the legislation is not necessary because “Rules based on Title II authority, with appropriate forbearance, will not impede investment, create new taxes, slow broadband adoption, or create additional litigation risk.”
Former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, however, argued that the “sledge hammer of Title II” is not conducive to a policy of forbearance, and would “eventually cause collateral damage to America’s tech economy” regardless of regulators’ intentions.
Even if regulations could be applied flawlessly at the federal level, he explained, “Title II regulation of the Net could trigger state and local regulations, taxes, and fees” that could cost customers up to $15 billion a year. (RELATED: The Consumer Costs of Net Neutrality)
In addition, forbearance would require the FCC to select “just a few” of Title II’s “approximately 1,000 heavy-handed requirements,” making its orders “impossible to defend in court” because they will appear “arbitrary and politically driven to appellate judges.”
“The tragedy of this debate,” McDowell said, “is that no one … has ever contested the goals of keeping the Internet open,” but nonetheless, “the fight has devolved into a question of how overreaching and heavy-handed the FCC would be in pursuing its ostensible goals.”
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