There was no shortage of enthusiasm in the packed ballroom at the University of Vermont Tuesday as Senator Patrick Leahy and Congressman Peter Welch heard testimony on the importance of net neutrality.
Nothing short of the future of the entire Internet is in jeopardy, according to witnesses called to testify before the field hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“The fate of the Internet will be decided in the next few months, and what’s decided in those few months might be very, very difficult or impossible to undo,” said Michael Copps, formerly a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission.
Copps now works for Common Cause, a liberal advocacy group advocating against “paid prioritization” – the idea that content providers could be forced by Internet service providers to pay extra money for a faster connection to their users.
Net neutrality advocates point to the February deal between Netflix and Comcast as an example of paid prioritization (also known as “paid fast lanes”), warning that such deals dramatically increase the barrier to entry in online commerce.
Lisa Groenveld, the CEO and co-owner of Logic Supply in South Burlington, told Leahy that even though the company could afford to pay for a step up online, she is fundamentally opposed to the concept.
“Logic Supply would absolutely pay to join the fast lanes, but we would not do so willingly,” she said. “It would force us to reallocate our investment money – and every company only has limited funds available for investment – away from other, real value-creating activities.”
Cabot Orton, the proprietor of Vermont Country Store, said he wasn’t so sure his company could pay for prioritization online, a shortfall that he said would do immense damage to the business.
“Every fractional delay in downloading a site or downloading content between two choices always, always means that the customer will wind up going with the faster, easier choice,” he said. “Put another way: Abandonment is death.”
Orton had a simple message for Leahy: “All the small business community asks is simply to preserve and protect Internet commerce as it exists today. Which we think has served all businesses remarkably well.”
Former FCC commissioner Copps said the best way to provide that protection is by classifying broadband in the same regulatory category as telephone service, known as FCC Title II.
But the broadband industry is actively against that. Former New Hampshire Senator John Sununu is serving as an advocate for the cause.
“Paid prioritization – in quotation marks,” he said, “is really a boogeyman that’s being rolled out by people whose objective is heavy-handed regulation of the Internet.”
Sununu says the deal between Comcast and Netflix was the result of poor business decisions by Netflix.
The deal with Comcast, he says, “allowed them to avoid the congestion that was being caused by the carrier they chose.”
The case “has nothing to do with consumers and what they pay for Internet access. This has nothing to do with the rhetoric about fast lanes or slow lanes. It’s all about Netflix and they way they choose to interconnect in order to deliver a better quality product.”
In Sununu’s view, paid prioritization doesn’t happen today, and the FCC shouldn’t regulate against something that isn’t even a problem.
In 2013, Sununu was paid $480,000 by Broadband For America – an advocacy group co-chaired by Sununu and former Democratic Congressman Harold Ford, according to the group's filings with the IRS. The previous year, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association paid $2 million into Broadband For America. The NCTA is a trade organization designed “to advance the cable and telecommunications industry’s public policy interest, and to promote the industry’s developments in order to better serve the American public,” according to tax filings.
In May, the FCC opted to consider a regulatory structure that would allow paid prioritization online. The commission has not yet made a final decision on how to govern net neutrality.