WASHINGTON -- Republicans are waging a last-minute campaign to gather support for net neutrality legislation that critics say will undermine the principles of a free and open Internet.
A draft proposal, circulated last week by Republican lawmakers in the House and the Senate, appears to to take a firm stance in support of net neutrality. It claims to impose regulations on consumer broadband Internet that net neutrality supporters have long advocated for, but critics say the bill is written in a way that will fail to uphold equal Internet access.
The legislation is an effort to head off a Federal Communications Commission vote next month about regulations on consumer broadband.
President Barack Obama, who supports stronger regulations, has asked the FCC to reclassify broadband Internet under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, a move that would allow the agency to prevent Internet providers from charging customers for better Internet access. The FCC is expected to favor reclassification in next month's vote, although the agency is certain to face lawsuits from cable and telecom companies if it does so.
A provision in the Republican-sponsored bill would stop the FCC from making the reclassification, undercutting the agency's ability to do what Obama has requested.
In House and Senate committee hearings on Wednesday, Democrats expressed open skepticism of the proposal and its potential loopholes. “There’s a lot of things in the Republican draft proposal that are non-starters,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) told The Huffington Post in an interview. “I’m worried about the most vibrant, competitive part of our economy getting hamstrung.”
“I get the sense there is no consensus to move this legislation right now,” she added.
But former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell was much more optimistic, contending that the bill has no problematic loopholes. “The FCC should hit the pause button, I think there’s actually some traction here potentially for bipartisan solutions,” he told HuffPost.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen Congress this close to actually passing a bill,” McDowell added.
Though the proposal offers many concessions to net neutrality advocates, critics maintain that it still fails to uphold important net neutrality principles. According to an analysis published on Tuesday by Barbara van Schewick, director of Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, the legislation “provides network neutrality in name only.”
“The bill is so narrowly written that it fails to adequately protect users, innovators, and speakers against blocking, discrimination, and access fees,” she and co-author Morgan N. Weiland, a J.D./Ph.D. candidate at Stanford Law School, wrote.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the chairman of the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee, accused the FCC of preparing to invoke the “nuclear option” by approving reclassification. “What we are offering today is a solution that will bring to an end the loop of litigation and legal gymnastics,” he said at Wednesday's House hearing.
In an interview with HuffPost, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said the issue was about “government control versus, really, freedom.” He added, “Our concern is Title II, giving the FCC this authority.”
At the Senate hearing, Paul Misener, vice president for global public policy at Amazon, testified that he approved of the draft's principles, but said that for them to be "meaningful to consumers, they need to be effective." Misener noted a number of ways in which the draft could be interpreted to "undermine that effectiveness." Amazon is part of a coalition of technology companies that has previously supported net neutrality.
"Any solution has to meet the goals of protecting consumers and innovation, and the discussion draft hits all of the hallmarks from prior Democratic proposals," House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said in a statement provided to HuffPost following the hearings. "Today’s discussion was a good start, and we look forward to engaging with our colleagues on both sides of the aisle to produce a sustainable, bipartisan solution.”
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) also told HuffPost said that he doesn’t support the Title II option and thinks that it qualifies as overreach.
In a statement, Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) said he believed the legislation remains “fair to everyone.” But he acknowledged, “Some of my colleagues across the aisle are still unhappy.”
Yet the legislation's backers will have to win over not only Democrats, but also skeptical Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has said he doesn't want any regulation of the Internet whatsoever.