Congress is Holding a Hearing on 'Internet Fast Lanes' to Tackle Net Neutrality

Congress wants to learn about paid prioritization.

Like your parents, Congress is trying to learn how the internet works. On Tuesday, the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology is holding a hearing to gain a better understanding of how information is disseminated on the internet. The hearing comes before the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality protections is set to take effect in the coming weeks.

The main focus of Tuesday’s hearing is “internet prioritization,” which refers to the speed at which some content is shared compared to other content, dictated by a user’s ISP. When net neutrality provisions are canned later this month, internet advocates — and some politicians — are concerned that ISPs will begin to monetize internet content, by charging content providers more to load their websites quickly, for example.

The hearing is not attached to any specific legislation; this event will mostly be about fact finding. “Because of the technical nature of what they want to explore — or say they want to explore — there might be more of an educational aspect to it,” Matt Wood, policy director for the media advocacy organization Free Press tells Inverse. Wood is one of four witnesses slated to speak during the hearing Tuesday.

Despite the hearing’s open nature, it could still have political ramifications. In a background memo released on Friday, committee staff underscored the importance of understanding exactly how data travels on the internet in order to make informed decisions about how it should be regulated.

“In light of concerns raised over the perceived anticompetitive nature of certain forms of prioritization, the Committee seeks a better understanding of how network operators manage data flows over the Internet and how data is prioritized,” the memo says.

A movement to enact federal net neutrality regulations has gained momentum since the FCC decided to repeal net neutrality provisions in December.

Prioritization concerns have been raised by net neutrality activists, who fear that an internet without net neutrality will be a digital Wild West where internet service providers could establish internet fast lanes and slow lanes. Paid prioritization would likely give wealthy corporations a huge advantage over smaller internet-based companies when it comes to reaching a wide audience.

“What the cable and phone companies would like to do with paid prioritization schemes is charge not only you, the broadband user, for visiting my website, but also charge me, the website, for that conversation and that same traffic,” Wood says. “The existing rules that were taken away got the balances right and will be hard to replicate.”

Because of the ongoing conversation around net neutrality, the discussion during Tuesday’s hearing could inform future legislation. For example, subcommittee chair Marsha Blackburn introduced a bill in Congress last December that would both allow paid prioritization, and ban states from enacting their own net neutrality legislation — as Washington and Oregon recently have. While Wood doesn’t expect Blackburn’s bill to pass this session, questions about the logistics and validity of such a bill could come up during the discussion.

You can watch the hearing live at 10:15 a.m. Eastern on Tuesday.