WASHINGTON — In a fight over the future of the Internet, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn says the federal government has no business policing how cable television companies and other telecommunications firms provide access for customers large and small.
But some advocacy groups and other observers say that without stronger federal regulation, customers will soon have to worry about their favorite websites being blocked, loading at slower speeds or suffering other discriminatory treatment from Internet service providers.
The issue of "net neutrality" — service providers having to provide equal access to different content and applications — has been heating up in the wake of a Jan. 14 federal court ruling. The court said the Federal Communications Commission, because of some of its own decisions of more than a decade ago, lacked the power to enforce net neutrality rules it implemented in 2010.
When FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said last week his agency would rewrite its net neutrality rules, Blackburn, R-Brentwood and vice chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, was immediately critical, saying the federal government should keep its hands off the Internet. She also introduced legislation to block the FCC from implementing new rules on the issue. Other Republicans also have introduced bills.
"The federal government can't figure out how to build a website. How do you figure it would control your access to the Internet?" she said in an interview.
Blackburn says only a hands-off approach from Washington will foster a competitive market among service providers as well as the innovation and investment to improve the Internet experience for all.
"We have been well served by an Internet where Internet service providers can work with you," Blackburn said.
Playing favorites feared
The National Cable & Telecommunications Association said it hopes the recent federal court decision leads to the "regulatory humility necessary to allow competitive forces in the marketplace to do their thing."
But others see an Internet where a few large companies such as Comcast and Verizon, operating without net neutrality rules, begin playing favorites in terms of access, quality of service and pricing for different types of sites and content.
Since the dawn of the Internet in the 1990s, the number of service providers has already shrunk dramatically, said Alex Curtis of the Creators' Freedom Project in Nashville. "There used to be thousands," Curtis said.
And without net neutrality to ensure equal access, "your startups and innovators are not going to get off the ground," added Craig Aaron, head of Free Press, a Washington advocacy group on media and technology policies.
Aaron and other net neutrality advocates say that could mean stifling the next Facebook or Googleor other ventures attempted by those in garages and college dormitories.
They want the FCC to reverse a decision made under former President George W. Bush and reclassify Internet service providers as "common carriers," treating them like phone companies and other utilities that have to keep their lines and facilities open to all.
Meanwhile, advocates say, the cost of other popular services will increase more rapidly as service providers strike special agreements with various websites for streaming and other Web services. They cite the deal Netflix just struck with Comcast to obtain faster and more reliable access to Comcast customers as an example of what's to come.
Tennessee has a community of Internet users that should be particularly concerned, some say.
"I think the issue of net neutrality is of urgent importance to the artists and producers of creative content," said Jay Clayton, director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University.
Without net neutrality, Clayton said, such artists could find the Internet harder to use as service providers treat sites differently.
"It could be more difficult for anyone to download material you've posted," he said.
Added Curtis of the Creators' Freedom Project: "Net neutrality is of real importance for the little guy, whether we are talking about artists or entrepreneurs."
But Blackburn said she hears from lots of artists who want the FCC to stay away.
"Tennessee has lots of songwriters who are concerned about the Internet being controlled by the FCC," she said.