POLITICS
01/07/2015 01:00 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2015

Democrats Head Off Republicans And Enter Net Neutrality Fight

WASHINGTON -- Democrats beat Republicans to the punch on net neutrality legislation on Wednesday, reviving a bill that would ban companies from charging more for faster Internet access. Republicans are still weighing their plan to curb strong net neutrality rules.

The fate of the Internet currently sits in the hands of the Federal Communications Commission, which plans to decide next month whether to reclassify consumer broadband as a utility, empowering the agency to ban Internet Service Providers from prioritizing certain web traffic. Net neutrality backers say that without sufficient government regulation, the Internet will cease to be free and open.

The Online Competition and Consumer Choice Act, reintroduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), would require the FCC to ban paid prioritization agreements between broadband and content providers on Internet delivered to consumers.

“The Internet must be a platform for free expression and innovation, and a place where the best ideas and services can reach consumers based on merit rather than based on a financial relationship with a broadband provider,” Leahy said in a statement.

Banning paid prioritization is part of the net neutrality plan presented by President Barack Obama in November, who also came out in support of reclassifying consumer broadband under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. Republicans, as well as the powerful cable and telecom industry, don't support that plan, arguing that Internet freedom can be achieved through less regulation.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) went so far as to call the plan "Obamacare of the Internet." Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told HuffPost in December that he doesn't "want to see regulation of the Internet. I think it's the wrong way to go about it."

If the Democrats' bill is enacted, it could take some pressure off embattled FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, whose agency is certain to face a legal challenge over its net neutrality rules.

Republicans have yet to unveil their own legislation to head off the FCC's decision. The Wall Street Journal on Sunday reported that GOPers are considering everything from barring reclassification to slicing the FCC's budget, but won't be sure which direction they'll go until the FCC releases its plan. Republican consensus is complicated by the fact that some members don't support any Internet regulation whatsoever.

Gene Kimmelman, president of the group Public Knowledge, pointed out to the Wall Street Journal that while there are many paths that net neutrality opponents could take, "If the White House remains firmly in favor of strong net neutrality rules, all legislation is likely to fail.”

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