Advocates argue over future of net neutrality

Applying 20th century laws to 21st century technology is not the answer to protect the free Internet despite the overwhelming amount of public support for that approach, anti-regulation advocates told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday in a hearing on net neutrality.

The Federal Communications Commission’s controversial net neutrality proposal has drawn fire because it would allow companies like Google, Netflix and Skype to pay extra for a faster pipe that would ensure speedier streaming for their content. The vast majority of the record-breaking 3.7 million comments filed to the FCC by Monday’s deadline urged the agency to reclassify the Internet as a public utility, like telephone services, to prevent big Internet companies from charging extra for such “fast lanes.”

“A few years ago you couldn’t even imagine that the Internet could become a system of have and have-nots protected by corporate gatekeepers,” said the committee’s chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who has written legislation to direct the FCC to ban paid prioritization deals.

Many of those urging net neutrality say that the best shot at giving such rules solid legal footing is to push for the FCC to use part of its charter, Title II of the Communications Act, to reclassify broadband as a public utility.

“A first-year law student at a bad law school could see that Title II is the only way to ban fast lanes,” Marvin Ammori, a First Amendment lawyer and Internet policy expert at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, said in an interview.

Internet service companies and their supporters, including many Republican lawmakers and free-market advocacy groups, argue that imposing 1930s-era regulations on the modern Internet is a recipe for disaster.

“The Internet is the greatest deregulatory success story of all time,” former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell said in his testimony.

“Nothing is broken that needs fixing. We can’t be foisting antiquated laws on new technologies,” he said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said at the hearing that he is “highly skeptical” of expanding FCC regulation over the Internet, since it is the very lack of such rules that has allowed the web to flourish.

Fast lanes for web services that depend on reliable Internet speed and quality, like voice calling and games, ultimately would benefit consumers, according to net neutrality opponents. Strict net neutrality rules would prevent experimentation with different kinds of services and slow innovation, they say.

This “nanny-state” regulation by the FCC is as inappropriate as the New York mayor “telling us how big our Coke can be,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told the committee.

Conservative and antitrust groups have tried to counteract the viral pro-net neutrality success by mounting web campaigns such as “Don’t Break the Net” and “Stop Internet Regulation Now” to drum up opposition to reclassification.

Over 808,000 Americans signed a petition to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler asking the commission to avoid regulating the Internet, according to the Republican advocacy group American Commitment.

“A radical fringe has dressed up a government takeover of the Internet as net neutrality,” Berin Szoka, president of the free market think tank Tech Freedom, said in a statement. The group created the Don’t Break the Net website to debunk what it calls “Title II myths.”

This echoes the statements _ some more than 100 pages long _ that Internet service giants AT&T, Comcast and Verizon submitted to the FCC. Reclassifying the Internet would “mire the industry in years of uncertainty and litigation,” AT&T said in its filing.

At Wednesday’s hearing, actress and independent producer Ruth Livier said that reclassifying the Internet will continue to give everyone a voice regardless of ethnicity or socioeconomic standing.

“Make no mistake, this is a civil rights issue,” she said in her testimony before the committee.

Livier said that traditional media executives dismissed her idea of a bicultural show about Latina women that went on to become an award-winning web series, “Ylse,” thanks to net neutrality.

“I don’t have deep pockets; I wouldn’t have been able to pay for a fast lane to distribute my show,” she said.

The committee’s hearing shows that neutrality has become an increasingly political issue, with legislators filing their own statements and taking sides.

Some comments submitted to the FCC are addressed to President Barack Obama, reminding him of a 2007 campaign speech in which he described himself as a “strong supporter of net neutrality” and pledged strong Internet laws if elected.

“How is it that a president who campaigned with net neutrality as his signature tech policy issue has appointed to chair the FCC someone who doesn’t seem willing to confirm to that campaign pledge?” asked Tim Karr, senior director of strategy at advocacy group Free Press.

For months, net neutrality opponents said Republicans and pro-telecom Democrats in Congress would bring the FCC to a standstill if it tried to use an Internet-as-utility approach. But as millions of public comments flooded the commission and calls from net neutrality supporters overwhelmed congressional offices, many started publicly backing reclassification.

“Let me assure you that I will lead the fight to protect any Open Internet rules promulgated by the FCC against the inevitable Republican attack against such rules,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wrote in a letter to technology advocates in July.

A growing number of congressional Democrats joined the Title II movement amid viral social media campaigns and street rallies that made net neutrality a hot-button topic this summer.

A group of 13 Democratic senators submitted a letter urging Wheeler to implement an Internet-as-utility approach, warning that otherwise, “the Internet will be sold to the highest bidder.”

Wheeler has said he hopes to put new rules in place by the end of the year. Public pressure from all sides is likely to keep mounting.

“The simple explanation for the amount of public attention is that people realize this issue is about who will control the future of communication,” said Karr of Free Press.

“That is why Internet provider companies and their allies are trying to destroy Title II protections, because it’s the one rule that prevents them from becoming the gatekeepers of the Internet,” he said.