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Despite Republican appeals, Democrats not willing to deal on net neutrality legislation

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"Net neutrality is vital to our economy and while we strongly support the rules on the books at the FCC, we have also indicated a willingness to work with Congress to ensure strong enforcement net neutrality rules are left intact," the Internet Association, a trade group representing the biggest tech firms, said last week.

July's "Day of Action" in support of net neutrality brought with it new calls for Congress to pass a bipartisan bill protecting the open Internet and prohibiting companies from blocking or throttling legal content. But lawmakers' appetite for such action has been hampered by partisan politics and the belief that, when it comes to the current net neutrality rules, you shouldn't fix something that isn't broken.

Like several issues before lawmakers on Capitol Hill, net neutrality has become a hyper-partisan issue since it burst onto the scene two years ago. Net neutrality refers to a set of rules designed to ensure that Internet service providers treat all web content equally by preventing providers from blocking or slowing down traffic from certain websites and services.

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission under former President Barack Obama approved regulations reclassifying broadband providers as "common carriers" under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.

In doing so, the FCC moved to regulate Internet service providers as an essential public utility, which opponents said would subject broadband providers to more onerous regulations and expand the FCC's oversight of the industry.

The simmering debate over the future of net neutrality began to boil again this year when President Trump tapped Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, a net neutrality opponent, to serve as the group's chairman.

In April, Pai issued a notice of proposed rulemaking to reverse the rules subjecting Internet providers to public utility-style regulations.

Pai's proposed rollback sparked intense anger from activist groups, the tech community, and Democrats on Capitol Hill, who encouraged voters to submit comments to the FCC opposing the repeal of the net neutrality rules.

The FCC fielded more than 9 million comments from lawmakers, Internet service providers, technology companies, trade associations, and voters about the issue. While many want the FCC to leave the net neutrality rules in place, others believe the debate has created a window for Congress to act.

"The FCC can do what it wants," said Evan Swarztrauber, communications director for TechFreedom. "But that is not a recipe for certainty. Having telecom policy ping-pong every time there's a change in the White House is bad for consumers and bad for business.

"The only way to avoid this is for Congress to take Title II off the table and codify net neutrality regulations that there's agreement on," he continued.

Republicans and Democrats alike have called for net neutrality legislation at different times over the past seven years, though efforts have shifted depending on who believes they may have the upper hand after an election, Swarztrauber said.

"Both sides have played politics with the issue: ‘Let me wait until I get a bigger margin [in Congress],' " he said. "It needs to stop. It doesn't matter who is in charge."

So far this year, Republicans have expressed a willingness to work with Democrats on net neutrality legislation.

During Pai's confirmation hearing for reappointment to the commission before the Senate Commerce Committee last week, Chairman Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., urged his fellow senators to work toward a bipartisan resolution to the net neutrality debate.

"I continue to believe … that the best way to provide long-term protections for the Internet is for Congress to pass bipartisan legislation," he said in his opening statement. "Two and a half years ago, I put forward legislative principles and a draft bill to begin conversation, and I stand ready and willing today to work toward finding a lasting legislative solution that will resolve the dispute over net neutrality once and for all."

Echoing Thune's calls is his counterpart in the House, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"I again call on my Democratic colleagues, edge providers, and ISPs, and all those who make up the diverse Internet ecosystem that has flourished under light-touch regulation to come to the table and work with us on bipartisan legislation that preserves an open Internet while not discouraging the investments necessary to fully connect all Americans," Walden said on the Day of Action. "Too much is at stake to have this issue ping-pong between different FCC commissions and various courts over the next decade."

But some Democrats are pouring cold water on their appeals.

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., a staunch defender of net neutrality and the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, said Republicans' offers to draft a net neutrality bill are hollow.

"One of the first acts from this Republican Congress was to take away Americans' online privacy," Pallone said in a statement to the Washington Examiner. "Any talk of legislating is just an attempt to provide cover for the FCC's partisan attempts to roll back these protections."

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., meanwhile, borrowed from the adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

"The current net neutrality protections are working well and appropriately balance the needs of startups, small businesses, consumers, and ISPs," Eshoo said in a statement to the Washington Examiner. "The open, accessible Internet in the U.S. has grown exponentially compared to other countries. Investment has increased with the online sector contributing more than 6 percent to our gross domestic product in 2014, and the stock prices of the top ISPs are doing well.

"What these facts underscore is that nothing is broken for Congress to fix."

Some Senate Democrats, though, have been slightly more optimistic. Sen. Bill Nelson, the top Democrat on the Commerce Committee, said he has continued to talk with Thune about a bipartisan net neutrality bill, but doesn't believe now is the right time given the political climate.

"There are too many folks, from Chairman Ajit Pai to the stakeholders and lawmakers who are dug in on a particular side of this issue, so it is making compromise an impossible task," Nelson, D-Fla., said in May.

A shift from Democrats, though, could come if technology companies ramp up pressure on lawmakers for a net neutrality bill.

"Tech is the only entity that I think can get them to the table," Swarztrauber said of Democrats. "If industry gives its blessing to negotiating, I think that will help immensely.

"They feed off regulatory certainty, and having to make investments on 10-year cycles, not four-year cycles based on elections," he said of tech companies. "Having legislation would be good for businesses and customers all over the spectrum."

Already, some major tech firms have signaled they would back action from Congress.

"Right now, the FCC has rules in place to make sure the Internet continues to be an open platform for everyone," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on his Facebook page on the Day of Action. "At Facebook, we strongly support those rules. We're also open to working with members of Congress and anyone else on laws to protect net neutrality."

Joining Facebook was the Internet Association, a trade group representing the biggest tech firms, including Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Netflix.

"Net neutrality is vital to our economy and while we strongly support the rules on the books at the FCC, we have also indicated a willingness to work with Congress to ensure strong enforcement net neutrality rules are left intact," the group said last week.

Swarztrauber, meanwhile, said passing a net neutrality bill would also pave the way for Congress to tackle more tech issues.

"The fact that net neutrality hasn't been resolved has held up other no-brainer legislation that aims to close the digital divide," he said. "This debate sucks all the oxygen out of the room."