On Wednesday, January 21, as the House and Senate played host to back-to-back hearings on net neutrality, it was clear that there’s been a seismic shift from how these debates have played out in the past.
Where before we’d see allies of Big Telecom claiming that net neutrality was “a solution in search of a problem,” now it seems like almost everyone is eager to paint themselves as allies of the open internet.
This shift in the debate amounts to an accomplishment worth celebrating as it demonstrates the real power of dedicated activist work over the past year, with millions of Americans—including countless musicians and independent labels—speaking out.
But it also comes with real dangers, as many of the same allies of Big Telecom who once fought Net Neutrality outright were now arguing for a new bill that under the guise of a net neutrality “compromise” could actually strip the Federal Communications Commission of its ability to actually protect musicians and other creatives’ ability to connect to their fans without being put in the slow lane.
The companion bills in question were sponsored by Sen. John Thune (R-SD) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) and attempt to get out in front of the FCC’s vote on new net neutrality rules scheduled for Feb 26. (You can watch the house hearing here; we’ll post the Senate hearing when it becomes available.) FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has indicated that the FCC may be moving forward with a plan based on Title II of the Communications Act, a strategy long-favored by many net neutrality advocates (including FMC) because of its strong protections and likelihood of holding up in court.
The hearings took place less than 24 hours after President Obama reiterated his support of Net Neutrality in his State of the Union address, saying “I intend to protect a free and open Internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community, and help folks build the fastest networks, so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world.”
Speaking as a witness in the house hearing, Chad Dickerson, CEO of the crafts-and-commerce site Etsy was direct about his issues with the legislation in question: “we’re concerned that the proposal does not ban all types of discrimination online.” To put it simply, a net neutrality bill that won’t stop unequal treatment isn’t really a net neutrality bill at all. As Stanford law professer Barbara van Schewick has argued, the bill is so narrowly written that it fails to adequately protect users, innovators, and speakers against blocking, discrimination, and access fees.” Jessica Gonzales of the National Hispanic Media Coalition similarly expressed concerns about the many loopholes in the bill, and its potential to undermine the FCC’s efforts to bridge the digital divide and expand access.
For their part, the giant broadband and wireless companies (awkwardly represented by former FCC commissioners Michael Powell and Meredith Atwell Baker respectively) were stuck repeating a series of debunked talking points, such as that regulation under Title II would inhibit investment in their networks. But Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA) entered into the record statements from CEOs of both Verizon and Sprint indicating that this wouldn’t be the case. Baker also predicitably floated threats of lawsuits by telecom companies if Title II was invoked. Of course, Verizon is the reason we’re having this debate; it was their lawsuit that led to the FCC’s original Open Internet Order being thrown out by a federal court one year ago this month.
Ultimately, both hearings seemed split on partisan lines, with Republicans generally supporting the bill and Democrats generally preferring to allow the FCC do its job. There’s no need for this to be a partisan issue, however. In fact, a new poll released Wednesday by the Internet Freedom Business Alliance indicates that 81 percent of all voters—including Republicans—agree with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s rumored intent to issue strong net neutrality rules. Put plainly, this is an issue that unites conservatives and liberals, even if GOP members of Congress haven’t quite wrapped their heads around this fact.
Because Democrats seem less than eager about Thune & Upton’s “compromise” bill, Wheeler may have a chance to move forward with new rules. While Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) indicated he’d be introducing another bill “in the near future,” it now seems unlikely that any congressional action will be taken before the FCC votes on their proposed rules on February 26.
But that’s no reason to be complacent. It’s still very important to tell Congress where you stand. And as Feb. 26 draws closer, we’ll be sharing more ways for you to take action. Stay tuned.
Net Neutrality logo by Jona Bechtolt