The new Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives began trying to kill off the FCC’s net neutrality rules the second they got into office. But many Democrats think the rules didn’t go far enough. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), who has been active on tech issues, has introduced a bill that would toughen up those rules. She joined up with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to sponsor a bill that goes further than the FCC rule changes to protect “internet freedom.”
In her statement on the proposed legislation, Cantwell makes it clear she doesn’t oppose the FCC rulemaking, which is facing court challenges from both Verizon and MetroPCS, on top of Republican political opposition.
Cantwell’s bill mirrors the FCC’s approach in many ways. For example, it includes the rule that broadband providers can’t block legal content, but allows for “reasonable network management.”
But there’s a big difference, too. The bill specifically bans prioritized service, preventing broadband providers from charging online service providers “for differing levels of quality of service or prioritized delivery” of content. That kind of “paid prioritization” is something that the FCC was willing to allow, and is one of the big reasons that some large broadband providers, including AT&T (NYSE: T) and Comcast (NSDQ: CMCSA), gave a reluctant OK to the FCC proposal.
The Cantwell bill would give consumers who believe their ISP is breaking the rules the ability to file a complaint either with the FCC or in federal court. It also allows state attorneys general to go to court and enforce the bill. “My bill returns the broadband cop back to the beat, and creates the same set of obligations regardless of how consumers get their broadband,” said Cantwell.
Clearly, one possible outcome of the net neutrality debate in Congress could be a standoff between Republicans in the House who want to tear down net neutrality rules, and Democrats like Cantwell and Franken who want to take the rules a step further. But a Democratic bill like this one might serve a sort of “flanking” function that would allow some kind of middle-of-the-road compromise to pass.
In any case, 2011 looks like it will be a year in which Congress gets much more involved in the debate over how Americans access the internet than it has in the past.