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The future of net neutrality looks shakier in 2015

Laura Bradley | July 15, 2014
Right now, lobbying money is pouring into both sides of the net neutrality debate. But if the Republicans take Congress in the mid-term elections, that party's push to block regulation will likely prevail.

 Reclassification was intended for simpler communications technologies, NCTA's Dietz explained. Applying it to the Web would "reverse years of settled precedent, dry up investment in broadband deployment and network upgrades, and result in protracted litigation and marketplace uncertainty."

GOP opponents, warning that governmental interference could create a bigger problem and stifle investment, argue the Internet has seen huge growth so far without intervention.

When he introduced his bill in May, Rep. Latta said reclassification would burden broadband providers with "regulatory baggage" and hamper innovation.

"At a time when the Internet economy is thriving and driving robust productivity and economic growth, it is reckless to suggest, let alone adopt, policies that threaten its success," Latta said in a statement. Latta declined a request for comment on the legislation on Thursday. Republicans, both in the House and the Senate, appear united against net neutrality legislation and reclassification, but Democratic positions vary.

In May of this year, at the beginning of the comment period, 34 House Democrats lobbied the FCC in favor of reclassification, but another 20 urged the agency not to make such a move. Maplight.org reported that all but one of the latter group had received campaign contributions from cable interests during a two-year period ending last December. The median contribution was $15,750, and six were above $50,000.

It's possible to support net neutrality, but oppose reclassification as the method of enforcement, AEI's Ornstein said. Either way, Ornstein added, House Democrats, the minority party, have little say in the net neutrality debate, making their letter to the FCC mostly symbolic.

Despite Democratic Party differences around net, most support reclassification, Ornstein said. "There's a substantial wariness, a belief that if you're not strong enough on net neutrality that you're going to get a very activist web community... who'll be very unhappy," said Ornstein.

Richard Greenfield, a media and technology analyst with BTIG, an institutional brokerage and fund services company, foresees an uphill battle for those hoping for reclassification as part of the FCC's net neutrality solution. "While we do not think even the Democrats in the Senate really support Title II [reclassification], it looks like their slim majority could be reduced even further in November. Title II appears politically untenable," Greenfield said.

The spectre of Internet 'haves' and 'have-nots'

Net neutrality supporters and a few Democratic politicians, including Leahy and Franken, remain outspoken despite--or perhaps because of--the challenges ahead. AEI's Ornstein said if much of this gets delayed until next year, political pressure will increase upon the FCC to avoid doing anything dramatic.

Last week, in his opening statement at a field hearing in Vermont, Leahy painted the classic net neutrality dystopia: an Internet of "haves" and "have-nots."

 

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