Democrats on Capitol Hill plan to introduce legislation that could restore net neutrality and the Federal Communications Commission’s authority to regulate broadband.
As President Joe Biden’s pick to become the FCC’s fifth commissioner stalls, two Senate Democrats will introduce the Net Neutrality and Broadband Fairness Act, which would codify Obama-era net neutrality rules that were repealed during President Donald Trump’s administration. Renewed efforts to pass federal net neutrality legislation are being led by Sens. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Ron Wyden of Oregon, according to a press release sent out by Markey’s office Thursday.
The legislation would restore the FCC’s authority over broadband infrastructure by classifying Internet service as a telecommunications service, according to a press release. That means tighter controls on broadband companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, The Washington Post reports.
Rep. Doris Matsui, a Democrat from California, will introduce companion legislation in the House, Matsui’s spokesman, George Hatamiya, confirmed last week.
“I strongly believe that the principles of net neutrality should be the foundation of an open internet,” Matsui said in an emailed statement to CNET. “These protections will help protect free expression and innovation — protecting consumers and ensuring a fairer online ecosystem.”
Markey, Wyden and Matsui will hold a virtual press conference Thursday afternoon to discuss the bill. Markey will host an “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) on Reddit’s r/politics subreddit on Thursday at 5:30 PM ET, during which he will address questions about net neutrality and efforts to pass comprehensive net neutrality legislation through Congress. will answer.
The bill is the latest maneuver in a decades-long battle over net neutrality and broadband regulation. At stake in this battle is who will govern the internet to ensure that broadband companies do not abuse their power as gatekeepers. The Democrats’ legislation would firmly establish the FCC’s oversight of broadband, giving the agency the power to police broadband abuses such as poor privacy practices or fraudulent billing. In addition, the law would give the agency more authority to promote competition and lay a solid legal foundation for the FCC to modernize its Universal Service Fund programs, which help provide subsidies to poor Americans for phone service and broadband Internet, as well as provide electronic tariffs. funding to offer broadband service to schools and libraries.
Net neutrality: a quick history lesson
Net neutrality is the principle of treating all traffic on the internet equally, whether you’re checking Facebook, posting pictures on Instagram, or streaming movies from Netflix or Prime Video. Proponents of net neutrality say the rules are needed to prevent broadband companies from using their power over the infrastructure that delivers content to your Internet-connected TVs, laptops, tablets and smartphones. But broadband companies and Republicans in Congress and the FCC say the old rules give the agency too much power and stifle broadband investment.
The result over the past decade has been a ping-ponging of federal net neutrality rules based on the political party in charge.
In 2015, the Democratic-dominated FCC adopted regulation under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. In addition to preventing companies from blocking or slowing down Internet access, it also introduced utility-style regulation for broadband. In 2017, the Republican-led FCC repealed the rules under Chairman Ajit Pai, who opposed the “heavy-handed” rules.
Since then, there have been Democrats on Capitol Hill. This included recent efforts by the FCC to reverse the repeal of net neutrality. But the Republicans opposed these attempts.
The last battle
Progress on regulation was expected to continue with Gigi Sohn, Biden’s nominee to fill the fifth seat on the FCC. Sohn, a longtime net neutrality supporter and activist who advised former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who passed the 2015 rules, was expected to give Democrats an FCC majority that would lead to new net neutrality rules.
But for more than 500 days, the FCC has been operating with a 2-2 split between Democrats and Republicans as Sohn’s nomination continues to await a Senate confirmation vote. With time running out before Democrats could potentially lose the Senate in the midterm elections, Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill are pushing to create net neutrality and FCC empowerment legislation.
The new bill is expected to face opposition from Republicans. The broadband industry says it does not oppose the law, which would codify key net neutrality protections, but it is likely to fight any provisions of the law that would restore the FCC’s authority to regulate broadband networks.
“America’s broadband customers have waited too long for Congress to strengthen and codify the important net neutrality principles that broadband providers already follow today,” said Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of industry group USTelecom. “But let’s be clear: Any such legislation cannot and should not be a back door for the government to regulate prices and make consumers’ internet experience worse.”
Grassroots groups like Fight for the Future, which supports federal net neutrality rules, said rebuilding the FCC’s authority is essential. The group says the COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that broadband is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. He believes a federal law codifying the FCC’s powers over broadband will ensure the agency fulfills its promise to ensure every American has access to affordable broadband and prevent broadband companies from “abusing their monopoly power.” Fighting for the Future.
“We know that the telecom giants and their friends in Congress are eager to take advantage of the situation [with the FCC’s 2-2 split] and push for weak legislation that offers net neutrality in name only, while losing the FCC’s ability to provide meaningful oversight,” he said. bill so that it is clear what is *real* net neutrality and what is an industry-supported sham.”
Net neutrality and states
After federal net neutrality protections were repealed, states like California, which passed net neutrality rules in 2018, are filling the void with their own rules. Federal courts have repeatedly upheld states’ rights to enforce these rules as the Republican-controlled FCC has abdicated its authority.
After years of litigation, broadband industry trade groups finally dropped their lawsuit in April to block California’s net neutrality law from taking effect. This could pave the way for other states to codify their own net neutrality protections. The result would be that in addition to California law, companies would likely have to comply with state regulations.
While it would be nice to have an open set of federal net neutrality, experts say it’s not needed.
“Service providers can follow 50 sets of rules,” said Greg Guice, director of government affairs for Public Knowledge of Sohn’s impasse over the FCC nomination. “It’s not ideal. But I think providers want it because it’s happening without a fifth commissioner.”