Internet ‘Fast Lane' Concerns Draw Crowd at Vt. Hearing

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., held a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Open Internet rules

A field hearing for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., drew a large crowd Tuesday to the University of Vermont. Before the hearing, a group of Vermonters outside spoke up in favor of the Internet as they know it: a place where consumers can choose where they go and what lawful content they see, following principles known as net neutrality.

"The Internet really needs to be a level playing field," said Gary Lambert, a technology educator at the Burlington Technical Center, who was holding a sign saying "Protect the Internet."

Net neutrality was meant to protect surfers by prohibiting Internet providers from favoring specific content. The Federal Communications Commission is now reworking its rules on this, after an appeals court tossed a 2010 Open Internet Order. Under the proposals, providers would be able to sell sites quicker data delivery for an extra fee, on what many call "fast lanes."

"I think if we lose the Internet, we're going to lose democracy. It's that serious," said William Rice of Randolph, Vt., who was holding a sign reading "Protect our access to information" outside UVM's Davis Center before the hearing. "I would like the Internet to stay the way it is so that people can have a democracy."

Sen. Leahy has proposed requiring the FCC to ban so-called paid prioritization deals. "I don't want to see an Internet that is divided between the haves and the have-nots," Leahy said at the hearing. "I don't want to see an Internet where those who can afford to pay can muffle the voices of those who cannot."

Leahy said he wanted to make sure the voices of real Americans are heard in Washington during the net neutrality debate.

"Today, our business depends dearly on the Internet," testified Cabot Orton, whose family runs the famous catalog, online, and bricks and mortar retailer The Vermont Country Store. "If we want to continue to prosper as a Vermont-based company, we must keep pace with our customers' need and desire to do business with us over the Internet."

Lisa Groeneveld, the chief operating officer of the Vermont-based hardware firm Logic Supply, testified that preferential Internet access may stifle startups. "Without an open and fair Internet based on equal access, our business might not even exist today," Groeneveld said.

Leahy said he would supply printed copies of testimony from the hearing to other members of the Judiciary Committee. "If you change the rules now, you're never going to change them back," Leahy said of the significance of the FCC rulemaking process. "So this is really a critical make or break."

New England Cable News is owned by Comcast. The media company is a major provider of Internet services, and several people at the hearing said they were wary of large corporations being able to buy Internet "fast lanes."

NECN asked its parent company for comment on the hearing, and was pointed to a statement from Comcast's Executive Vice President, David L. Cohen. "Comcast remains committed to a free and open Internet and working with the FCC on appropriate rules for all players across the industry," Cohen said. "Currently, Comcast is the only company in America that is legally bound by the FCC's now vacated Open Internet rules."

The public may comment on the FCC's net neutrality discussion, but the first phase of that comment period wraps up this month. More information on that process is available here.

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