Dems take net neutrality message on the road

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said Tuesday that a plan to allow some companies to pay for "fast lanes" on the Internet "runs contrary to every principle I believe the Internet was based on."

Leahy made the comments as part of a field hearing in Burlington, Vt., with Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.).

The two ripped the Federal Communications Commission plans for "fast lanes," and called for tougher FCC regulations to ensure Internet service providers can't give special treatment to some online content. 

The two argued the fast lanes could lead to a slower Internet for their constituents. 

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“We’re not going to have an economy in Vermont if we don’t have an accessible Internet,” said Welch, who serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and its subcommittee on Communications.

“I see this as absolutely essential to the future of Vermont's economy as well as rural America," he added. "We’ve got folks here on the front lines whose access to the Internet is crucial to the jobs that they created, the good jobs that we have in Vermont.”

Leahy said his constituents had "spoken very clearly” on the issue.

“You haven’t minced words. I am delighted that you don’t want to see the Internet dominated by a few corporations,” he said.

The FCC is currently collecting comments on a net neutrality proposal from Chairman Tom Wheeler that would ban Web providers like Comcast or Verizon from blocking access to one website or another but could open the door to negotiations to speed up traffic for content on some sites. 

Democrats and many tech companies have been vehemently opposed to the suggestion, which they fear would lead to a “pay-to-play” situation where big companies can shut out smaller upstarts. 

Last month, Leahy and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) introduced legislation to ban those “paid prioritization” agreements. 

Republicans, meanwhile, have worried that any regulation of the Internet is an unnecessary overstep by federal regulators.

The FCC decided to write new rules after a top court threw out existing regulations earlier this year.

Leahy and Welch got support in their opinion on Tuesday from a panel of local Vermonters and a former FCC commissioner, who all backed strong regulations.

“In our view, the proposed FCC rule changes would turn what is now a level playing field for businesses of all sizes into one where the biggest companies with the deepest pockets get their website content to customers faster than everyone else,” said Cabot Orton, who runs the Vermont Country Store. The shop sells a wide variety of kitchen goods, snacks and clothing, and does about 40 percent of its sales online.

“A small business website that is no longer protected from giant Internet toll keepers would have one choice,” he added: “Pay to play.”

The hearing was frequently punctuated by applause, a feature often banned from sessions on Capitol Hill.

Leahy also said he was glad to devote his entire attention to the testimony, unlike hearings in Washington, where lawmakers can be drawn between multiple hearings on widely different issues.

“This has actually been enjoyable, and not all hearings are,” he said.

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