Open Internet rules matter most outside the Beltway

Published in The Hill on September 16, 2014

Open Internet rules matter most outside the Beltway

By Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.)

Open Internet principles are the Bill of Rights for the online world. The Internet provides for free expression and a free and open marketplace where competition drives innovation. This should not change.

Right now, the Federal Communications Commission is considering a proposal that would create a two-tiered system and significantly alter the public’s unfettered ability to access content online. This should not happen. A record number of Americans — more than 1 million — have already spoken out and urged the FCC not to approve this misguided plan. This outpouring of comments reflects what has always been clear: Americans care deeply about the future of the Internet and the unparalleled opportunity it provides for free expression and an open marketplace of ideas.

Rather than keep this important dialogue limited to Washington, we urge the FCC to hold a series of public roundtable discussions outside the Beltway to hear personally from those Americans who rely on an open Internet to function in a modern world. We applaud FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler for announcing a schedule of roundtable discussions in Washington, but as the volume of comments from citizens across the country plainly demonstrates, the decisions made by the FCC on this issue will have a deep impact outside of the nation’s capital. The peoples’ voices should be heard.

Americans are concerned the FCC’s proposal could pave the way for Internet “fast lanes,” or paid prioritization agreements. We join the American people in urging the FCC not to allow this to happen. Paid prioritization would dramatically reshuffle the digital deck by altering the public’s unfettered ability to access content online. It could allow an Internet Service Provider (ISP) or a broadband provider the ability to offer preferential treatment to one content provider over another. If the FCC allows this to become reality, consumer choice would be at the mercy of the highest bidder.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Allowing paid prioritization agreements would stifle investment, innovation and creativity throughout the economy. A small business in Vermont or a start-up in California would face a choice between spending money to develop and improve their products or diverting those funds to pay for priority access to potential customers. With the uncertainty created by these agreements, investors will no doubt be hesitant to bet on the next technology, content or social platform that is still being dreamed up in a dorm room, basement or garage. “Pay-for-play” proposals could essentially squeeze out the next innovative company poised to become a household name.

Americans want a level playing field where they can make their own choices. Consumers do not want a two-tiered Internet, and they have overwhelmingly weighed in against paid prioritization. We agree, which is why we introduced legislation, the Online Competition and Consumer Choice Act, that would require the FCC to exercise its legal authority to ban paid prioritization agreements between ISPs and content providers on the last-mile Internet connection. In addition, our bill would prohibit an ISP from prioritizing or otherwise giving preferential treatment to its own last-mile Internet traffic or the traffic of its affiliates.

In Congress, we will continue to highlight this important consumer issue that will be the focus of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing tomorrow. We are hopeful that the FCC will propose a set of rules that support net neutrality, preserving an Internet that spurs innovation and protects consumers.

In order to make sure they get this right, the FCC should leave Washington and go on the road to hear firsthand from consumers, small-business owners, entrepreneurs, educators and other citizens who will be directly impacted by the policies put in place for the Internet. Their voices deserve be heard as loudly as any industry lobbyist or member of Congress. That is why we have worked to hold congressional hearings in Vermont and California so we can hear directly from our constituents who would be affected by Wheeler’s current net neutrality proposal, and to bring that important input back to Washington.

With the overwhelming interest in the future of the Internet, now is the time to show the American people that their government is listening.

Leahy is Vermont’s senior senator, serving since 1975. He is chairman of the Judiciary Committee and sits on the Agriculture; Nutrition and Forestry; and Appropriations committees. Matsui has represented California’s 6th Congressional District since 2005. She sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee.