Net neutrality wars entangle free speech

A lawmaker's bill would require Web sites to conform to the same net neutrality rules as broadband providers

U.S. Representative Cliff Stearns wants so badly to stop the U.S. Federal Communications Commission from creating network neutrality rules that he appears ready to weaken the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

Stearns, a Florida Republican, unveiled legislation Tuesday that would require the FCC, if it passed net neutrality rules prohibiting broadband providers from selectively blocking or slowing Web content and services, to also enforce the rules on Web application and content providers.

Under a narrow reading of Stearns' legislation, the bill would prohibit search engines from ranking results and would forbid Web content providers, such as video and news sites, from entering into exclusive content-sharing agreements that are now pervasive across the Internet. If the FCC creates net neutrality rules, the bill would require the Wall Street Journal's Web site, for example, to carry news from all news outlets.

Under a bit broader reading of the Internet Investment, Innovation, and Competition Preservation Act, the bill would require Web sites to publish all comments, rants, and half-baked conspiracy theories from all Internet users, if the FCC creates net neutrality rules.

It's hard to see how legislation that would force Web sites to carry other people's content would pass a First Amendment challenge. The language in Stearns' bill is a textbook example of a law that would curtail the freedom of speech and the press.

Stearns announced his legislation at a press conference hosted by Americans for Prosperity (AFP), an antiregulation advocacy group. AFP announced Tuesday that it would launch an advertising campaign opposing FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's plan to reclassify broadband as a regulated service.

Last week, Genachowski announced the plan to reclassify broadband in response to an appeals court decision saying the agency did not have the authority to enforce informal net neutrality principles.

At the press conference Tuesday, Stearns announced that his proposed legislation would require the FCC to issue a detailed report to Congress about market failures in the broadband industry before the agency could reclassify broadband. The bill drew praise from several broadband providers and related trade groups.

Buried in the Stearns bill, however, is a provision on "neutral network neutrality." The provision is squarely aimed at net neutrality backer Google -- some Republican lawmakers, broadband providers and other net neutrality opponents have complained that Google, in providing ranked search results and other services, isn't neutral.

The argument from net neutrality opponents goes like this: If the FCC regulates one part of the Internet, in this case, broadband providers, then it should regulate other parts of the Internet as well.

"If cable and phone can't manage their networks for congestion and quality of service, neither can Google when it comes to their data farms, search results, YouTube, etc.," a spokesman for Stearns said. "If cable and the Bells can't negotiate special deals, neither can Google."

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