Lawmaker invokes Ferguson as argument against 'fast lanes'

The co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus on Wednesday called for the Federal Communications Commission to regulate broadband Internet service as a public utility. 

Rep. Keith EllisonKeith Maurice EllisonSt. Paul elects its first African American mayor The Hill interview — DNC chief: I came here to win elections Brazile’s revelations stir confusion, anger among Democrats MORE (D-Minn.) invoked the racially charged protests in Ferguson, Mo., to argue against a proposed rule to create Internet "fast lanes" for companies willing to pay for them.

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He said making Internet service a public utility would support social justice and economic equality in minority communities.

Black communities would be some of the "hardest hit" by the proposed rule, said Ellison, who noted that news about the killing of a black teenager in Ferguson by a white police officer was highlighted through social media and the Internet.

"In the aftermath of Michael Brown's death, images and stories shared by Ferguson residents on the Internet became a major part of news coverage," he wrote in a Huffington Post op-ed. "If Internet providers had made it difficult for residents to share their videos and pictures with the public, the story of Ferguson would be fundamentally different."

He added: "An open Internet helps people of color launch businesses online, with lower startup costs than entrepreneurs often face." 

Ellison pushed back on the idea that the stricter classification would force providers to cut investment in areas already underserved. 

"Major Internet service providers are saying they will refuse to expand broadband access unless their profits increase and that's wrong," he said. "A trickle-down approach to Internet service will only fill the pockets of CEOs and increase the digital divide."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recently gave her support for a similar plan. It would reclassify broadband from an information service to a telecommunications service under Section II of the Telecommunications Act. Proponents say it would allow for clear rules to prevent providers from blocking, slowing or allowing companies to negotiate faster speeds. 

However, broadband providers and others have pushed back on the alternate classification, saying it is an outdated regulatory framework that has the potential to hinder investment and innovation. The commission has proposed new rules using separate authority under the Telecommunications Act — Section 706 — which an appeals court earlier this year found reasonable for creating Internet traffic rules.