Does new Republican bill back Obama's call for 'open Internet'? Sort of.

Republicans are putting forward a new bill that suggests they're more open to defending principles of 'net neutrality.' But the details are giving critics pause.

Mandel Ngan/AP
President Obama signs autographs after delivering the State of the Union address in front of a joint session of Congress Tuesday on Capitol Hill in Washington. He called for an 'open Internet.'

A day after President Obama renewed his calls for a “free and open Internet” in Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, the new Republican-led Congress is set to open debate Wednesday for new legislation meant to preserve the controversial principle known as “net neutrality.”

At issue is how the Internet should be regulated. Should Internet providers like Comcast and Verizon be allowed to make "fast lanes" for content they want to prioritize, or should the government step in to ensure that providers treat all web content the same?

Republicans have generally sided with the Internet providers – and therefore against net neutrality. But a “discussion draft” of a bill floated by Republicans in Congress last week suggests that they are adjusting their stance – though critics say the move could ultimately do more harm than good.

The Republicans' draft bill would put into law many of the FCC’s “open Internet” rules, which were thrown out by a federal court last January when Comcast and Verizon each successfully challenged the agency’s regulatory authority. For example, it would prohibit providers such as Comcast and Verizon from blocking any lawful content, giving their own produced content faster delivery to consumers, or creating “fast lanes” – prioritized, faster speeds for companies who pay an extra fee.

Previously, many Republicans had called such net neutrality regulations “Obamacare for the Internet,” saying they were the invasion of big government onto the web (though such regulations had been in place from the Internet’s start).

But a coalition of tech companies including Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and more than 100 others lobbied Congress in support of net neutrality. Republicans were left in the position of defending an industry that routinely ranks last in national consumer-satisfaction surveys.

Republicans tout the new bill as a compromise position.

“By turning the FCC away from a heavy-handed and messy approach to regulating the Internet, this draft protects both consumers who rely on Internet services and innovators who create jobs,” said Sen. John Thune (R) of South Dakota, in a statement.

Critics say the bill leaves too much authority in the hands of providers. It includes provisions that will limit the authority of the FCC to enforce these rules and prevents the regulatory agency from creating any new rules beyond those stated in the bill.

“If you connect the dots in this bill, it begins with, ‘We affirm a commitment to competition and openness,’ ” says Aram Sinnreich, professor at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information in New Brunswick, N.J. “But that’s just empty rhetoric when it goes on to detail the ways in which it will prevent federal regulators from making sure that these things won’t happen. It’s a ‘trust us’ bill. ‘Hey, trust Comcast, because of course they have your best interests at stake.’ ”

More significantly, perhaps, the bill would make broadband an “information service” rather than a “telecommunications service.” The distinction is crucial. The federal court gutted net neutrality rules last year because the FCC had designated broadband as an information service in 2002. That designation, the court said, limited the FCC's regulatory authority.

In February, the FCC can re-designate broadband as a telecommunications service, which would give it sweeping regulatory powers. Mr. Obama has urged the FCC to do this, saying the nation’s Internet cables are now just as essential to the American way of life as its water lines and electrical grid.

By designating broadband Internet a information service by law, the Republican bill would head off this effort. For that reason, the bill could face a presidential veto, even if it passes the House and Senate.

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