Tech companies took to Capitol Hill this week to voice their concerns about the way the net neutrality debate is unfolding.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler signaled that he would heed President Obama's call to preserve net neutrality--that is, treat broadband internet service providers as utilities (subject to more rigorous regulation than previously) to maintain equal access for all to the internet. Later this month, Wheeler is expected to issue a final order on the subject. Congress has also taken up the issue with its own potential legislation.
Among the companies testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Committee were online crafts marketplace Etsy and e-commerce company Amazon. While they generally applauded Congress for getting involved in the debate about the way broadband and wireless services providers are to be regulated going forward, they also took issue with parts of a draft bill that would weaken the FCC's ability to regulate such providers, experts say.
"We were encouraged by many pieces of the bill that align with what we've been saying, in particular a ban on paid prioritization and blocking are things we have advocated for," says Althea Erickson, Etsy's head of public policy. "But we have some concerns about the language of the bill."
Etsy chief executive Chad Dickerson and Paul Misener, Amazon's vice president of global public policy, both voiced concerns that the draft proposal would prohibit the FCC from using Section 706 to regulate service providers.
Currently, that section is the primary means the FCC has of regulating ISPs, which are classified as information services. One of the most important considerations that Wheeler is weighing in his February proposals is whether ISPs should be re-categorized as common carriers, as telecommunications companies are today. That would, in turn, subject them to more comprehensive, and some would say onerous, Title II regulations under the Telecommunications Act. By reclassifying ISPs as common carriers, they would in effect be treated like public utilities.
In recent months, President Obama has taken a public stance favoring a reclassification of broadband providers under Title II.
Late last year, Wheeler floated a "split the baby" approach, whereby ISPs might be regulated under Title II in their dealings with large content providers such as Netflix and Google's YouTube. For smaller content providers and consumers, they'd be required to adhere to the relatively more lenient standards set out under Section 706.
Removing Section 706 from the FCC's arsenal of regulatory weapons would have significant consequences, Dickerson said:
We also have serious concerns that by revoking the FCC's authority under Section 706, the bill would undermine the agency's ability to promote rapid broadband deployment across the country, particularly in rural areas, where the internet allows entrepreneurs to reach a global marketplace.
Etsy's Erickson says the current draft also has loopholes that could allow abusive practices to flourish, such as an exception for "specialized services."
Here's what the draft proposal says on that score:
Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit consumers' choice of service plans or consumers' control over their chosen broadband Internet access service or, except as provided in paragraph (2), the ability of broadband Internet access service providers to offer specialized services.
Such services, are ill-defined in the bill, Erickson says, and could be a doorway to offering tiered levels of service, based on a consumer's or a business's willingness to pay.
Both Dickerson and Amazon's Misener also criticized the draft bill for its focus on so-called last-mile operations, which deal with how consumers connect to broadband services at home. The bill does little to regulate activity further upstream in backbone networks and edge providers that in turn connect to the broadband networks.
In his testimony, Misener wrote:
Providers should not be allowed to accomplish blocking, throttling, paid prioritization, etc., further upstream in the network, just because the bill could be construed to address only the network facilities closer to consumers, such as the "last mile." If, by this possible omission and limitation of FCC powers, net neutrality were made ineffective by allowing the otherwise prohibited behaviors to occur further upstream, consumers would rightly judge their net neutrality to have been taken away.
Still, for Etsy at least, the testimony at the Capitol was a sign of progress.
"For us, we would like to see bright line rules that ban paid prioritization and content and application-specific blocking," Erickson says. "And we welcome conversations with Congress as we move toward this goal."