Democrats Push Bill Opposing Internet Fast Lanes

Bill directs FCC to ban paid prioritization of online content, criticizing net neutrality proposal.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., asks a question during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee on April 8, 2014, in Washington, D.C.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is leading an effort to ensure new Internet rules maintain so-called net neutrality.

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House and Senate Democrats introduced a bill directing the Federal Communications Commission to ban deals that could allow companies to pay for priority content speeds online Tuesday, which the members said would violate the ideal of net neutrality that all data should be treated equally.

[VOTE: Should the FCC Implement Net Neutrality Rules That Charge For 'Fast Lanes'?]

This legislative effort scrutinizing the FCC’s proposed net neutrality rules is being led by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. , and Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif. , with co-sponsors including Sen. Al Franken, D- Minn. ​​, along with California Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman and Anna Eshoo. The bill mirrors concerns from consumer advocacy groups such as​​ Free Press, ​ and Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, that the proposed net neutrality rules could allow companies to create “Internet fast lanes,” which could disadvantage businesses that cannot afford to deals for premium content speeds. The costs for such fast lanes could then be passed on to consumers, those critics add.

"Americans are speaking loud and clear – they want an Internet that is a platform for free expression and innovation, where the best ideas and services can reach consumers based on merit rather than based on a financial relationship with a broadband provider,” said Leahy in a joint statement introducing the bill, called the Online Competition and Consumer Choice Act.

The proposed net neutrality rules supported by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler are designed to replace the open Internet rules struck down by a federal appeals court in January. Critics have said he is moving too fast to fill that void, potentially leaving gaps in consumer protections in an effort to pass simpler rules that could survive court scrutiny.

“Our country cannot afford ‘pay-for-play’ schemes that divide our Internet into tiers based on who has the deepest pockets,” said Matsui in the joint statement. “This is essential to the growth of our economy, and the health of our democracy.”

[READ: Internet Fast Lanes May Raise Consumer Costs]

The legislation faces a difficult road in the House, where the Republican majority opposes any regulation of the Internet – including net neutrality – out of fear that it would stifle the free market of the Web.

“Imposing expansive network neutrality regulations would only serve to deter investment and stifle one of the brightest spots in our economy,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, wrote in a May ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​letter to Wheeler, which other House Republicans signed. ​.

The bill would prevent deals for an ISP to speed up delivery of a company’s traffic between its networks and consumers, but not peering agreements for a company to directly connect with an service provider and boost subscriber traffic. Netflix recently signed such peering agreements separately with Comcast and Verizon with the goal of boosting its customers’ video quality.

Such interconnection deals are also not addressed by the proposed net neutrality rules, but Wheeler announced last week that the commission will examine such deals to determine if any of them pose a threat to consumer rights.