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Net Neutrality Activists Warn Republican Congress to 'Back Off' Legislation
A net neutrality protest icon is seen in September 2014.

Net Neutrality Activists Warn Republican Congress to 'Back Off' Legislation

Activists are concerned that any net neutrality that legislation would "undermine" their ability to lobby the FCC.

Net neutrality activists were less-than-welcoming to a proposal by Congressional Republicans last week to make net neutrality the law of the land.

Congressional leaders introduced the draft of a bill on Friday as part of their search for a bipartisan solution to an Internet governance war that has spanned for more than a decade.

“What Americans have asked for time and again is an open Internet that is fair to all and provides innovation from the bottom up," said Communications and Technology Subcommittee chairman Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) in a statement on Friday.

"By acting legislatively, we are putting forward a fresh, sustainable solution that accomplishes the goals we all share, without the needless trips to court that would jeopardize these core principles,” said Walden.

Republicans are looking to head off Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler's plans to regulate the nation's Internet service providers like public utilities.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler speaks before calling for a vote during a meeting of the commissioners on May 15, 2014 at the FCC in Washington, DC. (AFP Photo / Karen Bleier)  Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler speaks before calling for a vote during a meeting of the commissioners on May 15, 2014 at the FCC in Washington, DC. (AFP Photo / Karen Bleier)

Wheeler is expected to bring the agency to a vote on his anticipated set of rules for ISPs at the FCC's monthly meeting on Feb. 26.

“This draft is one more step in our open and ongoing discussion about creating regulatory certainty for the Internet," said South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Thune and committee Ranking Member Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) are scheduled to hold a hearing to discuss the new proposal on Wednesday afternoon on Capitol Hill.

Walden will lead a hearing to discuss the draft on Wednesday morning.

Within their draft legislation, Republicans are looking to codify into law the net neutrality principles thrown out by a federal court over a year ago.

Among other elements of their proposal, Republicans will also propose to ban ISPs from charging websites for paid prioritization of content over wireline and wireless services - acknowledging a major concern voiced by net neutrality activists.

By doing so, Republicans would be reversing the position they've held for the past several years, which has been to resist enforcing the fair treatment of Internet traffic through regulation.

And with work still waiting to be done on issues such as tax and patent reform, law and policy makers on both sides of the aisle are eager to move forward from the net neutrality fight.

House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) called the plan a "thoughtful plan forward[.]"

A net neutrality protest icon is seen in September 2014. A net neutrality protest icon is seen in September 2014.

Net neutrality organizations funded by the progressive Ford Foundation, who has invested millions of dollars in major tech companies since the late 1990s, saw the move as an effort to undermine their efforts.

Ford Foundation is not affiliated with Ford Motor Company.

For example, Internet activist group DemandProgress.org sent an email on Friday warning Congress to "Back off."

"We are winning the policy fight over Net Neutrality, but it looks like certain members of Congress are trying to hijack the process by introducing legislation that would undercut us," said the organization.

Over the past year, net neutrality activists have aggressively pushed for the agency to place ISPs under a Great Depression-era regulatory regime.

The demands from activists paid for by major Internet companies and giant progressive foundations for strict regulation of ISPs has dominated much of the discussion during Wheeler's tenure as FCC chairman.

On one hand, their agenda has been to use the FCC to preempt any potential abuse of power over the networks owned and managed by ISPs.

The other has been to use government authority and taxpayer resources to increase Internet access and speeds across the country.

Wheeler's rules would propose reclassifying ISPs as "telecommunications services" under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.

Under Title II, telecommunications services are required to pay into the FCC's Universal Service Fund (USF), which funds agency-sponsored broadband projects.

The left-leaning Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) estimated in December 2014 that the new regime could cost ISPs and their customers upwards of $11 billion annually in new regulatory fees, assuming USF demand stays the same.

On the other hand, the Ford Foundation-funded Free Press has stated consumer costs will not increase.

On Friday, the Washington Post's Fact Checker said that it believed the cost to consumers would be somewhere in between PPI and Free Press' estimates.

The Washington Post has also received funding from the Ford Foundation for government accountability reporting, although it has said that the grant allows for "complete editorial independence."

"We think we're winning the policy debate in Washington. All signs indicate that the FCC has finally heard the will of the people and they are preparing to vote on strong rules to protect Net Neutrality on February," said Demand Progress in the email.

"In fact, things are looking so good that Comcast and their allies are going to Congress to try to derail our progress by pushing legislation that would undermine the FCC," said the organization.

The Ford Foundation's grant database states that the foundation granted $850,000 in 2014 for "[g]eneral support to increase democratic participation in marginalized communities by leveraging technology and core support for Demand Progress for public engagement to protect an open Internet."

Where the Republican legislative proposal seeks to head off Wheeler is by classifying broadband Internet access as an "information service under the Communications Act."

It also would ban the FCC from using "Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996" to regulate ISPs, as it has tried to do in the past with no success.

By doing so, while it would rewrite any current authority the FCC claims over how ISPs move traffic across their networks, it empowers the agency to enforce that new regime.

Wheeler also faces a potential no-win situation, however, since Verizon and AT&T are expected to greet his rules with another round of lawsuits in federal court challenging the agency's authority.

Praising Sprint's support for Title II net neutrality regulation on Friday, Alan Davidson --- vice president of New America Foundation (NAF) and director of its Open Technology Institute (OTI) --- urged the FCC to vote in favor of Title II.

OTI received $1.32 million in 2014 from the Ford Foundation, according to Ford Foundation's grant database, for "[c]ore support for the Open Technology Institute’s policy research on surveillance, Internet freedom and broadband access, the Ranking Digital Rights Project, for X-Lab, and a fellows program."

"It is encouraging to see leaders on both sides of the aisle embracing a free and open Internet," said Davidson of the Republican proposal.

"At the same time, nothing in the bill released today should deter the FCC from acting as soon as possible to protect American Internet users," he said.

Josh Peterson is the National Technology Reporter at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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