Surprise, surprise: There's a partisan divide in the net neutrality debate

GOP says it has an ‘open Internet' plan, too

WASHINGTON, D.C. - On Wednesday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler finally confirmed what everyone already expected – net-neutrality guidelines that would solidify protections and put broadband Internet under the strictest scrutiny it has ever faced.

Ahead of the commission’s Feb. 26 vote, Wheeler laid out a plan that advocates have applauded and Internet service providers have promised to take to court. But the issue extends beyond the consumer-provider divide and into, you guessed it, a partisan one.

Wheeler’s proposal echoes the wishes of most Democrats and President Obama, while Republicans have generally joined ISPs in pushing back against net neutrality rules. Lately, however, the GOP has changed its tune. Leading up to Wheeler’s proposal, the Republicans drafted their own legislation that reflects many tenets of the open Internet movement.

In a Feb. 2 letter to President Obama, the legislation’s sponsors, Rep. Fred Upton and Sen. John Thune, highlighted the goals they share with the president, including prohibiting the blocking of sites, slowing down sites and paid prioritization. They said their legislation would “have a profound, positive impact on Internet users, edge innovators, and infrastructure investment.”

To understand this sudden U-turn, let’s take a closer look at the history of the GOP’s open-Internet principles. In 2011, the Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee, under Upton’s leadership, voted to overturn FCC net neutrality rules. 

Thune, his Senate counterpart, called net-neutrality regulations “unnecessary and unwarranted” after the FCC enacted its 2010 version of the rules.

Even as recently as a year ago, Rep. Marsha Blackburn renewed her commitment to battling net neutrality when she introduced the Internet Freedom Act of 2014, which would ban the FCC’s rules established under the Open Internet Order and prohibit the agency from creating new ones.

“It’s time for Congress to slam the FCC’s regulatory back-door shut, lock it, and return the keys to the free market,” Blackburn said in a press release last February. “My legislation will put the brakes on net neutrality and protect our innovators from these job-killing regulations.”

With that in mind, this Upton-Thune rebirth as open-Internet evangelists probably seems too good to be true to the neutrality crowd. And some people say it could be.

According to Johannes Bauer, professor at Michigan State University’s media and information department, Wheeler’s proposal and the Upton-Thune bill represent two distinct camps with vastly different plans.

“The Republican legislative proposal is very different in terms of how it would protect net neutrality,” Bauer said. “One must not fall victim to the idea that they are trying to take the same path forward.”

To boil those differences down to basics: one of the net-neutrality approaches prioritizes the free flow of information across the Internet; the other focuses on the economics behind it all.

Guess what party belongs where!

Although it does protect basic net neutrality, the Upton-Thune bill essentially would strip the FCC from any oversight. With cut-and-dry guidelines rather than the strong arm of government regulation, Bauer says that cash cow ISPs would have “clear expectations” about how their services would be regulated.

In the Republicans’ past lives as net-neutrality foes, the consistent complaint they had against FCC rules was that they would choke “innovation.” What that really came down to was a fear that an unpredictable regulatory landscape would cut into ISP investments. By cutting the FCC out, the GOP has given service providers a legislative signal that, if Congress was in charge, companies like AT&T and Verizon Could expect to hold onto that cash.

“This thoughtful path forward ensures that consumers remain number one and in control of their online experience,” Upton said in a statement. “By clearly outlining the appropriate rules of the road, and leaving twentieth century utility regulation behind, we can be sure that innovators continue full throttle in bringing remarkable new technologies to all Americans. This is the right solution that everyone, if they are serious in standing up for consumers, should be able to get behind.”

OK, so the GOP is pro-business and anti-big government, no news there. Shouldn’t open Internet folks just be glad that Republicans now care about net neutrality?

In a November survey conducted by the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication, 85 percent of Republican respondents opposed letting Internet service providers charge sites for faster speeds. Introducing anything that removed the free speech aspects of net neutrality would have been a largely unpopular move.

But will the Republicans’ attempts be enough? Experts are split on the bill’s degree of protection. Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu, who coined the term net neutrality, told Vox that it was a “decent network neutrality bill.”

“To be clear, it’s weaker than what I favor. But it’s not non-existent. It somehow recognizes the existence of the norm in favor of network neutrality.”

Still, others express concerns that taking away the FCC’s ability to regulate the Internet will leave nothing behind but a legislative framework to regulate the constantly undulating Internet.

“It probably would not be an effective safeguard against discrimination,” Bauer said. “It doesn’t give them the tools to respond.”

And Bauer is slightly more optimistic than other researchers. Barbara van Schewick and Morgan Weiland detailed the bill’s holes in The Stanford Law Review, ultimately calling it “network neutrality in name only.”

“At first glance, the bill purports to ban paid prioritization, throttling, and blocking and applies the same rules to fixed and mobile networks, echoing language used by President Obama and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to describe their network neutrality proposals,” Van Schewick and Weiland write. “But on closer examination, the bill is so narrowly written that it fails to adequately protect users, innovators, and speakers against blocking, discrimination, and access fees.”

That’s the question for the open Internet movement: Have Republicans made a 180-degree change, or have they come full circle?

[More on net neutrality: The fight isn’t over]

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