Some Democrats, Minority Groups Question Net Neutrality

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A group of 72 Democratic lawmakers is the latest to question the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's move to create new net neutrality regulations.

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Democrats, including U.S. President Barack Obama, have generally supported new rules that would prohibit broadband providers from selectively blocking or slowing Web content, but the group of 72 members of the House of Representatives sent a letter Thursday to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, saying they're concerned that new regulations would slow down investment in broadband networks. Many of the 72 Democrats are members of the "Blue Dogs," a conservative wing of the party, or of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Although the Congressional Black Caucus isn't traditionally against government regulation, some members are concerned that many African-Americans and other ethnic minorities lack access to broadband networks. Among the House Democrats signing the letter were Elijah Cummings of Maryland, Charlie Gonzalez of Texas and Loretta Sanchez of California.

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The FCC on Thursday is scheduled to vote on a notice of proposed rule-making, the first step toward approving formal net neutrality rules. The FCC has had informal open Internet principles since 2005, but cable provider Comcast, in a lawsuit, has challenged the agency's authority to enforce the principles.

The 72 House Democrats join 18 Senate Republicans, a coalition of minority groups, the Communications Workers of America and a coalition of telecom-related companies, including Cisco Systems, Ericsson and Motorola, in raising concerns about new net neutrality rules in recent days.

The FCC should "carefully consider the full range of consequences that government action may have on network investment," the Democratic letter said. "In light of the growth and innovation in new applications that the current [regulatory] regime has enabled, as compared to the limited evidence demonstrating any tangible harm, we would urge you to avoid tentative conclusions which favor government regulation."

Opponents of net neutrality rules say there have been few examples of broadband providers blocking or slowing traffic.

But net neutrality advocates say that traditional telecom carriers had to share their networks with competitors until 2005, when the FCC began relaxing those rules. There was significant investment in networks when telecom carriers had to share their networks, net neutrality advocates say.

A day before the Democrats' letter, a coalition of minority groups also sent a letter to the FCC, raising some of the same concerns.

"As organizations that serve communities that are amon

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g the most severely impacted by a lack of access to technology, we urge you to keep your number one focus on the need to get everyone connected," said the letter, signed by representatives of the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Asian American Justice Center and other groups. "We are concerned that some of the proposed regulations on the Internet could, as applied, inhibit the goal of universal access and leave disenfranchised communities further behind."

The net neutrality rules could slow investments in broadband and slow minorities' access to telemedicine, distance learning and other services, the letter said.

Net neutrality advocates said they were concerned that members of Congress and minority groups were buying into false claims by broadband providers.

"The people who those members of Congress represent are the most at risk from the closed, controlling Internet that the phone and cable companies want," said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a digital rights group. "The constituents of these members of Congress have fewest choices of providers and access to the least competition. They have the lowest Internet data speeds, they have the diminished opportunity to use the Web to its fullest potential. They are being betrayed."

Ben Scott, policy director of media reform group Free Press, noted that the FCC is just beginning the process of looking at net neutrality rules.

"We want to remind members of Congress and the other lawmakers that have come out of the woodwork this week to question net neutrality, that the benefits of a free and open Internet to free speech, economic innovation and democratic participation are absolutely invaluable to their constituents in the digital age," he said.

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