- Associated Press - Thursday, May 29, 2014

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - High technology executives and two members of the government agency that regulates the industry joined Sen. John Thune Thursday on a tour intended to show how the Internet helps small South Dakota businesses connect with customers from around the world.

Representatives from AOL Inc., Yelp Inc. and Facebook Inc. and two members of the Federal Communications Commission accompanied Thune.

Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of The Internet Association, which organized the event, said it was the seventh such event at which the group shows members of Congress how much traditional companies in their states rely on the Internet.

“Our industry is a relatively new industry, when you think about the history of commerce in the United States,” he said. “We want to help build that understanding that the Internet is building jobs throughout the country.”

Thune is the ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which oversees Internet issues, and is in line to become chairman if the Republicans regain a majority of the U.S. Senate in November. He will be influential in the debate over an FCC proposal that would allow Internet providers to charge other companies for priority, high-speed, access to their users.

The FCC on May 15 moved the proposed rules governing so-called “net neutrality” into a formal public comment period. After that 120-day period ends, the FCC will revise the proposal and vote on a final set of rules. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said he wants the rules in place by the end of this year.

Thune opposes them and has joined other Republican leaders in urging the FCC to abandon the effort.

The two FCC commissioners who voted against the rules, Michael O’Rielly and Ajit Pai, joined Thune on Thursday’s tour that first stopped at Blend Interactive in downtown Sioux Falls, a Web design and development company. Partner and creative director Karla Santi said the firm that has grown to 17 employees has clients around the U.S. and internationally, so an open Internet is vital.

“That’s how we started and that’s what we would like to fight for, as well,” she said.

Leigh Freund, vice president and chief counsel in global public policy at AOL, said the company sees Thune as an ally because of his support for the technology industry and desire for minimal regulation.

“He gets that regulation can stand in the way,” said Myriah Jordan, a public policy manager with Facebook.

Thune didn’t respond in detail to the net neutrality issue but said he doesn’t want companies to be subject to “Ma Bell regulations,” referring to rules that once controlled the telephone industry.

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