Republicans and Democrats might finally have found an issue on which they can agree.
With their new majority in Congress, GOP lawmakers may be poised to introduce legislation that prevents Internet service providers from playing favorites with data. So-called “net neutrality” has been a goal of Democrats for a while now. If recent reports out of Washington turn out to be accurate, lawmakers should capitalize on the opportunity.
Net neutrality is an arcane technical issue in many regards. In simplified form, net neutrality is the notion that Internet service providers — Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner, etc. — should not be allowed to create fast and slow lanes between customers — you — and online content. Customers pay for access, and it’s none of the providers’ business what legal websites they visit or which streaming movie service they use. All of the bytes should be equal.
Without net neutrality, providers could choke data from competitors’ sites, from sites that don’t pay them off or from sites they just don’t like. For example, Comcast could slow down Netflix, causing movies to buffer more often and making Comcast’s own movie offerings more attractive.
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The Federal Communications Commission has been developing net neutrality regulations over the last year and will release them by spring. A legislative compromise is almost certain to be preferable to FCC-imposed rules that would wind up in a lengthy court battle.
But there are only whispers to go on right now, not actual legislation. Democrats — especially President Barack Obama, who wields a veto pen and said he wants strong net neutrality rules — should not sign off on a weak deal. At a minimum, the law should protect a free and open Internet and should apply to wireless carriers. People consume their digital content on smartphones and tablets as much as wired computers and televisions.
Fortunately, supporters of net neutrality have a bargaining chip. If regulations wind up coming from the FCC, it might classify Internet service providers as utilities. There’s a bunch of legal mumbo-jumbo involved, but the bottom line is that as utilities, providers would have to deal not just with net neutrality but also with other burdensome rules. They might be willing to accept strong net neutrality if it means avoiding the rest.
Powerful political players have lined up on both sides of the issue. Major telecommunications and media companies have staked out positions. So have civil liberties and other groups. And they aren’t staying quiet.
The FCC received millions of public comments on net neutrality in 2014. When the Sunlight Foundation studied those comments, it found that most were form letters generated by advocates with deep pockets, including “a shadowy organization with ties to the Koch brothers.” The Koch brothers oppose net neutrality.
The Sunlight Foundation found something else in the comments, too. When it separated out the non-form-letter submissions, leaving only the letters from people who took the time to write something themselves, it found that less than 1 percent opposed net neutrality.
Americans want their Internet to remain free. Congress should give that to them this year.