New net neutrality group targets GOP
By Tony Romm
10/16/14 1:43 PM EDT
Supporters of strong net neutrality are setting their sights on a tough target: conservative lawmakers.
The new Internet Freedom Business Alliance, backed by websites like Etsy, Kickstarter, Lyft and Tumblr, aims to convince skeptical congressional Republicans as well as lukewarm moderate Democrats that the FCC should apply more stringent rules to preserve an open Internet, in effect treating the Web like a utility as it does with telephone service.
IFBA has registered lobbyists, including its executive director Andrew Shore, a founding partner at the firm Jochum Shore & Trossevin PC. The group’s counsel is Marvin Ammori, a well-known net neutrality advocate who helped form IFBA and has worked with its corporate members in the past. And the association has assembled a steering committee that includes trade groups like COMPTEL, whose leader, former Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.), is well-known in GOP circles.
But the alliance faces a daunting challenge: winning over Republicans who have historically been opposed to any net neutrality rules. While the open Internet debate unfolds at the FCC, where Chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposal has sparked controversy, IFBA is eyeing Congress, hoping to make headway among lawmakers who may eventually get drawn into the fight.
“There’s a sense this will end up in the lap of Congress, one way or another,” Shore said. “So what we’re trying to do is build an organization that leads with the messengers, so we can get into these offices in a friendly way and make the case for why the chairman’s proposal … is bad for the American public.”
Wheeler’s net neutrality proposal, unveiled earlier this year, has sparked pushback from critics who say it would allow online fast lanes — an Internet in which big providers could charge content companies for speedier delivery of their services. An array of Web companies and consumer groups have argued for another option — Title II, or reclassification — which would subject AT&T, Verizon and other broadband providers to some of the same rules that apply to phone companies. Many telecom giants have threatened to fight any moves in that direction.
Republicans have been among the biggest opponents of net neutrality rules, fearing the impact on investment and innovation. GOP senators even tried but failed to reverse the FCC’s previous open Internet order, which was ultimately thrown out in court earlier this year. More recently, Reps. Fred Upton (Mich.) and Greg Walden (Ore.) — two influential Republican leaders of the House Energy & Commerce Committee — have slammed the FCC’s latest net neutrality proposal as a “solution in search of a problem.”
“Worse still, any attempt to reclassify broadband Internet embarks on a worrisome course for its future,” the duo said in a statement in May as the FCC opened debate on its rules.
Still, IFBA believes it has an opening with Republicans. To Ammori, the court’s ruling striking down the FCC’s previous rules left Wheeler with two options — “Title II, or permit discrimination,” he said. That could make reclassification more popular among the GOP set, he said.
“You never win an argument when you’re not at the table,” Ammori added.
The group believes early outreach is critical, especially in the event Congress wades into net neutrality as part of a broader attempt to update the nation’s telecommunications laws. For now, alliance leaders say they’re keeping their pitch basic as they try to bring many members up to speed on the intricacies of the issue.
“There are 535 personal offices on the Hill, and only a few of them have dealt with these issues on a daily basis,” said Shore, who declined to say which congressional offices the association had contacted. “To lead with Title II doesn’t mean much to a lot of people because they’re not as dialed in to the issue as those of us who spend our days working on these types of things.”
Other members of IFBA’s steering committee include CCIA, which represents tech giants Google and Microsoft; Engine, a tech startup advocacy group; and the National Association of Realtors. Its other founding members are Automattic, which operates WordPress; General Assembly, which teaches users how to code; and Imgur, a photo-sharing service.
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