Dark-suited aides flanked the crowd at the University of Vermont’s Davis Center on Tuesday afternoon, and people scattered through the room waved posters reading “Save Our Internet.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) faced a panel of witnesses lined up to talk about the internet at a field hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The topic, specifically: “Preserving an Open Internet: Rules to Promote Competition and Protect Main Street Consumers.”
Ever since John Oliver begged people to care about net neutrality on late-night TV last month, the American public has obliged — at least, judging from the YouTube video, which has more than 4 million views.
Leahy, too, has apparently obliged. On June 17th, he and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) introduced the bicameral Online Competition and Consumer Choice Act.
In January, a federal appeals court struck down the Federal Communication Commission’s rules surrounding net neutrality — the concept that internet service providers (ISPs) — like Comcast, Fairpoint or Burlington Telecom — should not privilege, discriminate against or block internet content to users. The ruling opened up the possibility that ISPs could charge higher fees to deliver content from certain companies, like bandwidth-hungry Netflix, at a faster speed.
Leahy’s bill aims to block ISPs from creating such a two-tiered traffic system. At the hearing, which will enter into the record of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Leahy called on four witnesses to weigh in on the potential effects of paid prioritization deals.
Lisa Groeneveld, co-owner and chief operating officer at industrial computer manufacturer Logic Supply in South Burlington, said that in a system of paid prioritization, the faster internet traffic would not slow down other traffic. Rather, she said, consumers would simply begin to expect faster traffic across the board. “It’s like going down a highway and everyone’s going 55. It’s fine until someone builds a new lane and goes 100.”
This, she said, would have major implications for how competitive her company is. “People will leave your site if it feels slower,” she said.
In order to compete on the global market, Groeneveld said, her company would have to pay extra to get into the fast lane. She also said fast lanes would give advantages based not on superior products, but on ability and willingness to pay.
Martha Reid, Vermont state librarian, said libraries simply couldn't compete in that system. The real fear, she said, is that fast lanes would increase the exposure of for-profit businesses at the expense of services not backed by corporate dollars.
“This would clearly place limitations on the amount or quality of information libraries can provide to their users,” Reid said.
From left to right: Michael Copps, Martha Reid, Cabot Orton and Lisa Groeneveld.
Cabot Orton of the Vermont Country Store noted that search engine ranking is very important to his company. Since site speed is a part of those rankings, his business might also consider paying for the “fast lane” if it had to.
He compared the services internet to Rural Free Delivery, which made the U.S. mail service available to all Vermonters, making the Vermont Country Store’s mail order business possible. He noted that the government’s push to ensure mail service equity helped his family’s private business thrive.
“Time and again, the uniquely American phenomenon of equal access to public resources, like the internet, has empowered entrepreneurs and advanced the nation,” he said.
Michael Copp, a former FCC commissioner said even the FCC rules overturned in January did not go far enough. In fact, he said, broadband internet should be classified as a telecommunications service like telephones instead of as an information service, which would give the FCC broader authority to regulate ISPs.
“If an ISP can slow down or block those sites who refuse to play the game … then we have starved the nourishing potential of this technology and truncated the rights of citizens to share in a communications revolution that should be more about 'We, the People' than it is about the privileged few,” he said.
And it wouldn’t have been a Leahy event without the requisite story about Batman, his favorite superhero, coming to the library to rescue his grandchildren. His story got chuckles from the crowd.
It’s worth noting Leahy’s longstanding relationship with Time Warner Cable Inc., the parent company of Warner Bros., producer of Batman films. During the 2010 election cycle Time Warner was the second largest donor to Leahy and his political action committees.
Time Warner is also currently in talks with Comcast, Leahy’s seventh-largest donor in 2010, over a merger. Both companies have spoken out against additional governmental regulations on their internet service businesses.
Both companies also supported Leahy in 2011 when he introduced the Protect IP Act, which attempted to curb online piracy by forcing ISPs to block sites that were distributing copyrighted materials. The bill died once major internet companies jumped into the ring to fight it, declaring it an attack on net neutrality and drawing public opinion to their side.
This time, though, much of the public — or at the very least, John Oliver — appears to be on Leahy’s side.