Republican bill: Net neutrality protections without reclassifying broadband

Thune and Upton plan to introduce bill they say will provide basic net neutrality protections

net neutrality sign clouds internet

Top Republicans in Congress plan to introduce legislation that they say will ensure net neutrality protections for Internet users and will spur U.S. economic growth.

The proposal would create "unambiguous" rules prohibiting broadband providers from selectively blocking or throttling Web traffic, while avoiding a reclassification of broadband as a regulated public utility, said a Wednesday blog post at Reuters.com by Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, and U.S. Rep Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican.

The bill would not allow Internet service providers to "charge a premium to prioritize content delivery," but it would create new rules without relying on reclassification of broadband under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.

Reclassification, under consideration by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, would be an "ill-fitting tool," wrote Thune, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The Title II rules were "conceived in the Franklin D. Roosevelt era for public utilities," they added. "Policymakers, however, need updated tools written for the Internet age."

Several groups calling for strong net neutrality rules have asked the FCC to reclassify broadband as a public utility. Late last year, President Obama also called for reclassification of broadband.

Suggesting the Telecom Act is "stuck in the 1930s is ridiculous," said Matt Wood, policy director of Free Press, a digital rights group calling for reclassification. "It's an insult to the bipartisan Congress that updated and future-proofed Title II" when it passed the Telecom Act in 1996.

Preventing unreasonable discrimination against Internet users is not outdated, Wood said by email. "If [the Republicans have] suddenly seen the light and realize that Internet users, businesses, and innovators need these protections, that's a big step forward for lawmakers who've been denying these truths for so long. But these principles are the same ones that Congress has already enshrined in Title II, and that the FCC still has available to it at the core of that law."

The FCC is scheduled to vote on new net neutrality rules in late February. It's unlikely that Congress could pass new legislation before then, but a later law could preempt FCC action. Republicans hold the majority in both the House and the Senate, but several lawmakers in the party have objected in the past to any new net neutrality rules.

Even as Thune and Upton's blog post was published, another Republican leader questioned whether new net neutrality rules are needed. Instead of new regulations, the U.S. government should look to antitrust law to enforce competitive practices by broadband providers, said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Some communications law experts believe "that the regulatory approach leaves consumers with fewer choices and higher prices, the antithesis of net neutrality," Goodlatte said during a Wednesday speech on his committee's legislative priorities. "The Internet doesn't need an inflexible one-size-fits-all government mandate to ensure net neutrality."

Thune and Upton plan to launch a public discussion of their working proposal this week, they wrote. Passing the net neutrality rules are an "early priority" for the new session of Congress, they said.

"Our nation's current technology and telecommunications laws were meant for an era of rotary telephones, brick-sized cellular phones and expensive long-distance service," they wrote. "By acting legislatively, we can set aside the baggage and limits of an antiquated legal framework and work with the Federal Communications Commission to ensure the Internet remains the beacon of freedom and connectivity that defines America in the 21st century."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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