Democrats on Capitol Hill plan to introduce legislation that could restore net neutrality and the Federal Communications Commission’s authority to regulate broadband.
With President Joe Biden’s pick for the FCC’s fifth commissioner stalled, two Senate Democrats will introduce the Net Neutrality and Broadband Fairness Act that would codify the Obama-era net neutrality rules that were repealed under President Donald Trump’s administration. A renewed effort to pass federal net neutrality legislation is being led by Sens. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Ron Wyden of Oregon, according to a news release sent out by Markey’s office Thursday.
The bill would restore the FCC’s jurisdiction over broadband infrastructure by reclassifying Internet service as a telecommunications service, according to a press release. That would mean tighter oversight for broadband companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, the Washington Post writes.
Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., will introduce companion legislation in the House, George Hatamiya, Matsui’s spokesman, confirmed last week.
“I strongly believe that the principles of net neutrality should form the foundation of an open Internet,” Matsui said in a statement emailed to CNET. “These protections will help defend free expression and innovation – protecting consumers and ensuring a fairer online ecosystem.”
Markey, Wyden and Matsui will host a virtual press conference Thursday afternoon to discuss the bill. And Markey will host an “ask me anything” (AMA) on Reddit’s r/politics subreddit on Thursday at 5:30 PM ET, during which he’ll answer questions about net neutrality and his efforts to pass comprehensive net neutrality legislation through Congress networks.
The law is the latest maneuver in a decades-long battle over net neutrality and broadband regulation. In this fight is who, if anyone, will police 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 authority to police broadband abuses, such as lax privacy practices or fraudulent billing. In addition, the bill would give the agency more authority to promote competition and would put the FCC on firm legal ground for modernizing the Universal Service Fund programs, which help provide poor Americans with subsidies for phone service and broadband service and also provide E-rate funding for schools. and a library to provide broadband services.
Net Neutrality: A Quick History Lesson
Net neutrality is the principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally, whether you’re checking Facebook, posting pictures on Instagram, or streaming movies from Netflix or Prime Video. Supporters of net neutrality say the rules are necessary to ensure that broadband companies don’t abuse their power over the infrastructure that delivers content to your Internet-enabled televisions, laptops, tablets and smartphones. But broadband companies and Republicans in Congress and the FCC say the old rules gave the agency too much power, stifling broadband investment.
The result of the past decade has been a ping-ponging of federal net neutrality regulations based on political party.
In 2015, the FCC passed the regulation with a Democratic majority under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. In addition to preventing companies from blocking or slowing Internet access, it also imposed utility-style regulation on broadband access. In 2017, the Republican-led FCC repealed the rules under Chairman Ajit Pai, who opposed the “onerous” regulations.
Since then, Democrats on Capitol Hill. This included last-ditch efforts to reverse the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality. But Republicans opposed the effort.
The latest battle
Regulation was expected to continue with the nomination of Biden’s pick to fill the FCC’s fifth seat, Gigi Sohn. A longtime net neutrality supporter and activist who advised former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who passed the rules in 2015, Sohn was expected to give Democrats an FCC majority that would lead to a new set of net neutrality regulations.
But for more than 500 days, the FCC operated with a 2-2 split between Democrats and Republicans while Sohn’s nomination languished awaiting Senate confirmation. As time runs out before Democrats potentially lose the Senate in the midterm elections, Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill are pushing to introduce net neutrality and FCC powers legislation.
The new law is expected to face opposition from Republicans. The broadband industry says it does not oppose legislation codifying basic net neutrality protections, but is likely to fight any provisions of the bill that would restore the FCC’s authority to regulate broadband networks.
“American broadband users have waited too long for Congress to reinforce and codify important net neutrality principles that broadband providers already follow today,” Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of industry group USTelecom, said in a statement. “But let’s be clear: Any such law cannot and must not be a backdrop for the government to regulate prices and degrade consumers’ Internet experience.”
Grassroots groups such as Fight for the Future, which supports federal net neutrality rules, said restoring the FCC’s authority is critical. The group says the COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that broadband is no longer a luxury but a necessity. He believes federal legislation codifying the FCC’s broadband powers will ensure the agency can fulfill its promise to ensure every American has access to affordable broadband and prevent broadband companies from “abusing their monopoly power,” says Evan Greer, director of Borite 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 reducing the FCC’s ability to provide meaningful oversight,” she said in a statement. legislation so that it is clear what is *real* net neutrality and what is falsely supported by foreign industry.”
Net and state neutrality
Since the repeal of federal net neutrality protections, states, like California, which passed net neutrality regulations in 2018, have been filling the void with their own rules. Federal courts have repeatedly upheld states’ rights to enact these regulations since the Republican-controlled FCC has relinquished 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 a number of state regulations.
While it would be nice to have a clear set of federal net neutrality protections, experts say it’s not necessary.
“Service providers can comply with 50 sets of regulations,” Greg Guice, the government’s director of public knowledge, said in a recent interview about the standoff with Sohn’s nomination to the FCC. “It’s not ideal. But I guess that’s what the ISPs want, because it happens without a fifth commissioner.”