GOP calls for open internet, but more in symbol than substance

“Open internet” has become one of those political catch-phrases like “freedom” or “innovation” that enjoys universal support but is rapidly losing any real meaning. Consider, for instance, the new broadband bill trotted out on Friday by Republicans with a press release that promises “open and unfettered access to the Internet.”

The bill itself, which comes as the FCC prepares to vote February 26 on new rules for the internet, contains language intended to address consumers’ fears that telecom giants like AT&T want to remake the web so as to favor the delivery of some websites over others.

The preamble, in particular, contains strong words that will ring familiar to net neutrality advocates (my emphasis):

ensure Internet openness, to prohibit blocking lawful content and non-harmful devices, to prohibit throttling data, to prohibit paid prioritization, to require transparency of network management practices

And the text of the bill, proposed by Sen. John Thune (R-SD) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), drives the point home by saying that internet providers “may not throttle lawful traffic by selectively slowing, speeding, degrading, or enhancing Internet traffic.”

Alas, what the bill gives, it also takes away. For instance, it gives internet providers broad latitude to offer “specialized services,” a term that, as Public Knowledge notes, could quickly come to stand for “fast lanes” by another name.

Meanwhile, the bill also strips the FCC of key oversight powers, and is silent about whether its proposed anti-throttling rules should apply to a deeper layer of the internet, where Verizon and ISPs have been demanding companies like Netflix pay a toll or else see their streams get degraded.

For net neutrality advocates, all of this suggests that the Republican approach presents considerably more risk than the one that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is expected to propose at the February meeting. (His plan is expected to invoke a law known as Title II in order to treat broadband like a utility, akin to electricity or phone service, but also using the FCC’s so-called “forbearance” powers to spare ISPs from most of Title II’s regulatory obligations.)

For practical purposes, though, the Republican bill is most likely a symbolic gesture given that President Obama has made clear his preference for the Title II approach, and will almost certainly veto the bill if it passes.

But whatever the outcome, the Republican bill is significant as it reflects how notions of “open internet” and “throttling,” which were long familiar only to geeks and policy wonks, have now become part of mainstream political discourse in the U.S.