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Congress Still Bickering Over Net Neutrality Legislation, Making Passage Unlikely for Now

Republicans offer net neutrality proposals, but net neutrality advocates aren’t enthusiastic about them.


Congress took up the fight over new net neutrality rules in back-to-back hearings Wednesday that did little more than confirm that the sides are nowhere close to agreeing on how to resolve the years-long debate.

Republican lawmakers — and broadband providers — had hoped compromise legislation recently unveiled might help convince FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to back off proposing new rules for Internet lines next month. But that seems unlikely given the variety of concerns about the legislation raised by net neutrality advocates and Internet companies.

“It is more important to get it right than get it done right now,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee.

Last week, Republican leaders in the House and Senate Commerce committees unveiled proposed net neutrality legislation that would give the FCC clearer authority to act as an Internet traffic cop. It was a notable document because many Republicans had previously argued there was no need for net neutrality rules.

Nevertheless, the discussion draft outlined a variety of protections that both sides now appear to agree are a good thing: It would prohibit blocking of legal Internet content or devices, ban fast-lane or paid priority services and would apply to both wired and wireless broadband service.

Once net neutrality advocates got a look at the language, however, they argued it didn’t provide many protections at all. It was a complaint echoed Wednesday by Democrats during the hearings, who argued the proposal might allow broadband providers to legally skirt the rules.

Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui of California said that there has to be a “100 percent ban on paid prioritization” and that she was concerned “the overly broad definition of ‘specialized services’ in the bill could serve as a loophole for paid prioritization schemes and create a two-tiered Internet system.”

Paid prioritization would allow an Internet company such as Google’s YouTube to pay broadband providers extra to deliver its content over a specialized pipe into people’s homes. Detractors worry such a scheme could create a two-tiered system of content, muscling out smaller players.

Amazon’s Paul Misener agreed specialized services would “create a huge loophole,” but said his company was happy to work with lawmakers on language that would give the FCC clear authority to prevent network discrimination, throttling or blocking of content.

Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson testified that “clear, bright-line rules that preserve a level playing field online” are needed. Like other net neutrality advocates, Dickerson said he has concerns about the draft. He said if lawmakers could change the language, the legislation “could provide much more certainty and work along with FCC regulations.”

Republican Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune of South Dakota acknowledged during an afternoon hearing that concerns had been raised about the draft legislation, but called it a “good faith proposal” that he hoped would prompt a “serious conversation for a long-term solution.”

“Let’s find common ground and forge a permanent solution,” Thune said.

The still-to-be-released FCC net neutrality proposal “undoubtedly will end up in years of costly litigation, providing no protections but much uncertainty,” said House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., during one session, maintaing that Congress should “do our job and craft a new law for this century through the open and transparent legislative process.”

Even if Congress were to pass this legislation — and it’s nearly impossible to see how it might do that before the FCC acts next month — the bill would still likely face a veto threat from President Obama, who has been vocal about his thoughts on what the FCC should do.

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