University of Vermont

Sen. Leahy Holds Judiciary Committee Hearing at UVM on Net Neutrality

Panel of four witnesses testify at Davis Center event

Sen. Patrick Leahy talks with Cabot Orton, who owns the Vermont Country Store with his two brothers, following Orton's testimony at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee July 1 at the Davis Center.

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy brought the United States Judiciary Committee that he chairs to the University of Vermont on July 1 for a field hearing on the hotly debated topic of “Preserving an Open Internet: Rules to Promote Competition and Protect Main Street Consumers.”

The hearing, hosted by Leahy and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, focused on the need to restore open rules to replace FCC rules that were struck down earlier in the year by the D.C Circuit Court. Leahy recently introduced legislation known as the “Online Competition and Consumer Act” requiring the FCC to ban so-called “paid prioritization” agreements between broadband providers and content providers to help prevent the creation of a two-tiered internet system.

Leahy says the legislation would ensure that starts-ups, entrepreneurs and small businesses like the Vermont Country Store and Logic Supply, whose owners testified at the hearing, have equal access to the marketplace and aren’t disadvantaged by so-called “fast lanes” created by internet providers for content providers who could afford it. 

“I don't want to see an internet that is divided into the haves and have-nots,” Leahy told about 200 people at the Davis Center. “I don't want to see an internet where those who can afford to pay can muzzle the voices of those who cannot. Our little state has spoken clearly, and it doesn’t want the internet to be dominated by big corporations.”

A panel of four witnesses testified at the hearing, including Michael Copps, a former commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission; Martha Reid, Vermont state librarian; Cabot Orton, co-owner of the Vermont Country Store; and Lisa Groeneveld, co-owner and chief operating officer of Logic Supply Inc., in South Burlington. 

“Our success depends on providing an exceptional online experience for our customers to enjoy and trust,” said Orton, whose grandparents relied on the U.S. Postal Service to fill orders when they started the Vermont Country Store in 1945. “We believe that the new rules proposed by the Federal Communication Commission would change all this for the Vermont Country Store and countless small businesses. We don’t want to imagine an America with two internets: a fast one for giant corporations and a slow one for everyone else. In our view, the proposed FCC rules would turn what is now a level playing field for businesses of all sizes into one where the biggest companies with the deepest pockets can get their website content to their customers faster than everyone else…. All the small business community asks is simply to preserve and protect internet commerce as it exists today, which we think has served all businesses remarkably well… just keep the playing field level and let free enterprise do what it does best: enrich the human condition.” 

Groeneveld, whose company designs and manufactures industrial computers, said Logic Supply relies on its website for 100 percent of its revenue stream and that the creation of fast lanes violates two of her company’s core values: openess and fairness. 

“Without an open and fair internet based on equal access, our business might not exists today,” said Groeneveld, adding that if the FCC rules are passed, her company might be forced to pay for fast lanes or become extinct. “We want an internet where all companies and organizations have an opportunity to compete on the merit of their product, services, knowledge base and talent. We therefore support any efforts that prohibit fast lanes.” 

Reid said Vermont’s 183 public libraries -- the most per capita in America -- are often the only place in small towns to offer free internet access and are go-to places for entrepreneurs, job seekers, independent learners and researchers. “I have spent my entire professional life working in libraries to ensure that information resources are freely available to all citizens on an equal basis,” she said. “All Americans including the most disenfranchised citizens, those who would have no way to access the internet without the library, need to be able to use internet resources on an equal footing.”

Copps said we have to find a way back to a more competitive broadband environment by saying no to the endless number of mergers and acquisitions that are distorting not just our communications, but democracy. “An internet-control advantage for the benefit of 'haves' discriminates against our rights not just as consumers, but more importantly, as citizens.”