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Democrats hope to push FCC to ban fast lanes online

WASHINGTON — Democratic lawmakers unveiled legislation Tuesday that would force the Federal Communications Commission to ban Internet fast lanes.

The proposal, put forward by Senate Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, and Representative Doris Matsui, Democrat of California, would require the FCC to use whatever authority it sees fit to make sure Internet providers don’t speed up certain types of content (like Netflix videos) at the expense of others (like e-mail). It wouldn’t give the commission new powers, but the Online Competition and Consumer Choice Act would give the FCC crucial political cover to prohibit what consumer advocates say would harm startups and Internet services by requiring them to pay extra fees to Internet providers.

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‘‘Americans are speaking loud and clear,’’ Leahy said. They want “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.’’

The proposed ban on fast lanes would apply only to the connections between consumers and Internet providers — the part of the Internet subject to the FCC’s proposed Net neutrality rules. The FCC’s current proposal tacitly allows for the creation of a tiered Internet for content companies, though the commission has asked the public whether it should ban the practice.

Because the bill would merely direct the FCC to rely on its current authorities, there’s a limit to how effective it could be. An ongoing debate at the FCC is whether it can legally ban traffic discrimination at all. Under the current proposal, the FCC would tacitly allow commercial speed agreements but then review problematic ones case-by-case, rather than lay down a blanket restriction against ‘‘paid prioritization.’’

Consumer advocates have suggested the FCC reclassify broadband as a utility — a decision that would subject Internet providers to greater regulation. Broadband companies have said even that would not guarantee a prioritization ban’s survival, because a loophole in the law allows for some traffic discrimination so long as it isn’t ‘‘unjust’’ or ‘‘unreasonable.’’

The Democratic bill is another sign that Net neutrality is dividing lawmakers along partisan lines. In May, Republican Ohio Representative Bob Latta introduced a bill that would prevent the FCC from reclassifying broadband. A Democratic aide conceded Monday that the Leahy-Matsui bill is unlikely to attract Republican cosponsors.

The fact that Republicans control the House makes it unlikely the Leahy-Matsui bill will advance very far. Still, the politics of Net neutrality are obscuring the underlying economics at stake, said the aide, who asked not to be named because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. ‘‘People are missing the point,’’ the aide said. ‘‘The point is: Ban paid prioritization. Because that’ll fundamentally change how the Internet works.’’

The FCC’s chairman, Tom Wheeler, has said that he’s reserving the reclassification option in case his existing plan fails to protect consumers.

He has been reluctant to use that option so far,probably because it would be controversial. But increasingly, it seems Net neutrality is divisive enough without that option.

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