They're at it again: US Senate panel votes to weaken net neutrality rules

The legislation would exempt small ISPs from transparency requirements

It's the issue that won't die: A Senate committee has voted to weaken the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality rules.

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee voted Wednesday to approve a bill that would exempt small broadband providers from rules requiring them to provide their customers with information about network performance, network management practices, and other issues.

The rules are intended to give broadband customers data about actual speeds, compared to advertised speeds, and potentially controversial congestion management practices.

The Senate bill, the Small Business Broadband Deployment Act, would still ensure "meaningful transparency for consumers" because older FCC rules requiring some disclosure of network management practices remain in place, said Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican and committee chairman.

The committee's vote on the bill, with strong support from majority Republicans, came just a day after a U.S. appeals court upheld the FCC's net neutrality rules in full. Congress has the power to weaken or kill the rules, however.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a similar bill in March in a 411-0 vote. It's unclear whether President Barack Obama, a strong supporter of the net neutrality rules, would veto the legislation.

The Senate bill "creates a needless loophole" in the net neutrality rules, said Joshua Stager, policy counsel at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute.

"To weaken that order just one day after it was upheld by a federal court is an affront to the millions of Americans who asked for these rules," he said by email. "The transparency rules help ensure a level playing field for small businesses to compete in the online marketplace -- which is why so many small businesses asked the FCC to create these rules in the first place."

Small ISPs are exempt from the transparency rules until the end of the year, and the FCC can grant an extension, Stager added. "The bill’s sponsors haven’t explained why Congressional action is needed," he said. "They also haven’t demonstrated how being transparent with customers is a burden for any ISP."

Since the FCC passed its net neutrality rules in February 2015, Republican lawmakers have attempted to pass more than a dozen bills or amendments to weaken or kill the regulations. None so far has succeeded.

The FCC's net neutrality rules prohibit broadband providers from selectively blocking or slowing Internet traffic. Supporters of the rules worry that broadband providers have large incentives to favor their own services or services from partners over competitors.

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