LEHI — While efforts to walk back the GOP-controlled Federal Communications Commission decision to unravel Obama-era net neutrality rules continue, some political leaders, including Utah's Rep. John Curtis, are ready to strip partisanship out of the ongoing debate.
Curtis hosted an invite-only roundtable discussion Tuesday at Adobe's offices in Lehi, hoping to gather stakeholder input on how to best address efforts to maintain an appropriately open internet system.
"We tried to get every position represented in the room," Curtis told the Deseret News. "We had (internet service providers), edge providers and both large and small tech businesses. I felt like we had a really productive dialogue about our mutually shared objective — an open and fair internet."
Curtis noted that see-sawing FCC internet rule modifications, which have been following the tides of political change in the nation's capital, lead to uncertainty in the industry. And that, he noted, results in negative outcomes for all involved, from internet and content providers down to everyday web users.
"My personal feeling is the best answer is a congressional fix," Curtis said. "One of the problems we're experiencing right now is administration changes lead to (internet) policy changes and we whiplash back and forth. One of the resounding messages from the roundtable group was the need for predictability."
Stringent net-neutrality rules, forbidding internet service providers from the practice of throttling service for certain websites or creating tiered levels of service based on business partnerships were implemented during President Barack Obama's time in office, when the five-member FCC board had a 3-2 Democratic majority. Shortly after taking office, President Donald Trump promoted Ajit Pai from his FCC board position to chairman of the agency, which now splits on a 3-2 Republican majority. Last December, the body voted to undo those Obama-era rules.
An effort to walk back that decision, leveraging the power vested in lawmakers to override administrative rule changes via the Congressional Review Act, has won Senate approval on a mostly partisan vote but is currently languishing in the U.S. House.
Curtis said while he understands the impetus behind the push to address the most recent FCC changes using the Congressional Review Act, he sees it as perpetuating the partisan divisiveness on net neutrality issues.
"One of the problems I see with the (Congressional Review Act) is it goes back to the whiplash effect and also precludes the FCC from fine-tuning (internet rule) changes in the future," Curtis said.
"Handling it through congressional action, and legislating on principles of a fair and open internet while leaving some discretion to the administration ... would be the best approach."
Roger Timmerman, executive director of Utopia Fiber, attended Tuesday's meeting and told the Deseret News he appreciated Curtis' efforts to address net neutrality issues at the congressional level.
"The overall tone of the meeting was very good and (participants) were able to express diverse opinions on the issues," Timmerman said. "I think Curtis was able to find common ground and told us that he's evolved his view of net neutrality from one that was against federal regulation to the recognition that there needs to be a solution that comes from Congress ... one that does not fluctuate with the ebbs and flows of administration changes."
Timmerman noted that while customers on Utopia's fiber network, which serves about 80,000 Utah households, are able to choose from over a half-dozen different internet service providers, the same competitive landscape doesn't exist for most internet users.
"If we had a truly competitive internet provider market, then we wouldn't need regulation," Timmerman said. "But, we know that doesn't exist for most Utahns or for most people in the country. Most consumers have only one (internet service provider) option and you're lucky if you have two.
"The need for net neutrality protections will be ongoing until we get where we want to be, as far as a competitive environment."
Timmerman agrees with Curtis that the partisanship that has become attached to net neutrality issues is out of place. Timmerman also noted that while many GOP elected officials have taken stances opposing net neutrality regulation, that view is out of step with the Republican rank and file.
"There is a lot of evidence that the Republican general public is strongly in support of maintaining net neutrality," Timmerman said. "I try to make the point all the time that there is no basis for making this a partisan issue. At all."
Media and internet watchdog group Free Press has touted the same argument in its advocacy for maintaining a regulatory framework to keep internet access, for both customers and content providers, an equitable playing field.
"Net Neutrality has never been a partisan issue except in a few buildings in Washington, D.C.," Free Press Action Fund Government Relations Director Sandra Fulton said in a recent statement. "The protections established under the Obama-era FCC in 2015 have broad bipartisan support from voters across the country. Eighty-two percent of Republicans opposed the Republican FCC's decision to repeal the rules.
"Net Neutrality rules protect everyone's right to a free and open internet. They protect free speech and choice from corporate ISPs, ensuring that people can tell their own stories, take advantage of economic opportunities, further their education and fight for racial justice without fear of discrimination."17 comments on this story
When asked about potential next-steps on net neutrality legislation, Curtis said he plans to continue to both gather input from constituents and advocate in Congress on behalf of creating stable, thoughtful legislation to maintain a fair and open internet.
"My goal is to be a thought-leader," Curtis said. "I've made a committment to understanding this issue as well or better than anyone ... and I will continue the dialogue in my district and be very active on the issue with my colleagues."