A Republican effort to preserve some of the principles net neutrality has already hit resistance from Democrats and Internet advocacy groups just days after it was unveiled, raising questions about whether the proposal can make it to President Trump’s desk.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., chairman of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee, introduced the Open Internet Preservation Act last week, just days after the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal the net neutrality rules, which aimed to ensure all web content is treated equally.
Blackburn’s bill is the first from a member of Congress to address net neutrality in the wake of the FCC’s vote. Under her bill, Internet service providers would be prohibited from blocking or slowing down traffic from websites.
The bill also classifies Internet access as an information service under Title I of the Communications Act, and calls on the FCC to create procedures to address violations of the ban on throttling and blocking traffic, and adjudicate those complaints. Under the FCC's net neutrality rule, Internet access was regulated as a public utility under Title II of the Communications Act.
But supporters of the FCC's rules are already taking issue with what they say is a failure of Blackburn's bill to address net neutrality’s ban on “paid prioritization,” which is when an Internet service provider charges websites to avoid Internet congestion. They say the bill would lead to Internet “fast lanes,” which they say benefit big companies and websites.
“When Chairmen Thune and [Fred] Upton released their draft net neutrality bill in 2015, I called it a legislative wolf in sheep’s clothing, offering select few safeguards while taking away the FCC’s future authority over broadband,” said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass, a member of the Senate Commerce Committee. “Congresswoman Blackburn’s bill is even worse. This legislation doesn’t just rip authority away from the FCC to protect consumers, it goes further to undermine the very spirit of net neutrality by allowing broadband providers to establish Internet fast and slow lanes.”
Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, also assailed the bill, calling it “even worse than I expected” and promising not to “participate in half-baked Republican efforts.”
Prominent organizations that backed the net neutrality rules also took issue with the absence of a provision on paid prioritization.
“The proposal circulated today does not meet the criteria for basic net neutrality protections — including bright-line rules and a ban on paid prioritization — and will not provide consumers the protections they need to have guaranteed access to the entire Internet,” the Internet Association, a trade group that counts Facebook, Netflix, and Twitter among its members, said in a statement.
Support for the FCC’s roll back of net neutrality has largely landed on party lines in the House and the Senate, though a handful of Republicans in the lower chamber said they supported the principles of the Internet rules. In the Senate, only one GOP member, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, opposed the FCC’s reversal of the net neutrality rules.
The politicization of the debate could hinder the chances of Blackburn’s bill making it through the Senate, where it would need 60 votes to pass.
Republicans will still control a majority of seats in the Senate next year, but their margin shrunk to 51-49 after Doug Jones, a Democrat, beat Roy Moore, a Republican, in the Alabama Senate special election.
Democrats are also coalescing around a plan by Markey to undo the FCC’s action on net neutrality by using the Congressional Review Act. The senator announced last week he would be introducing a CRA resolution of disapproval, and the resolution currently has 26 Democratic cosponsors, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Schumer said last week he plans to force a vote on the resolution, which requires a simple majority to pass.
But it’s unclear whether any Republicans would support Markey’s resolution of disapproval, and the resolution seems highly unlikely to advance in both the House and Senate. Still, top Republicans believe Congress needs to find a bipartisan solution to addressing net neutrality.
“Congressional action is the only way to solve the endless back and forth on net neutrality rules that we’ve seen over the past several years,” Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said on the Senate floor after the FCC’s vote Dec. 12. “If my colleagues on the other side of the aisle and those who claim to support net neutrality rules want to enshrine protections for consumers with the backing of the law, I call on you today to join me in discussing legislation that would do just that.”
Despite the opposition from net neutrality supporters, Blackburn’s legislation received early support from FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who voted to roll back the net neutrality rules last week. O’Rielly called the bill a “thoughtful approach” that “includes necessary boundaries and offers a realistic opportunity for compromise and finality on this much-debated issue.”
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, also praised Blackburn’s efforts, and echoed Thune’s call for congressional action, saying the bill “lays the groundwork for Congress to enact broadly bipartisan principles that will preserve the dynamic Internet ecosystem that has driven so much growth and innovation over the last two decades.”
“Now that the Federal Communications Commission has taken action to restore Title I, it’s up to Congress to codify a light-touch framework while providing certainty and bright-line protections for consumers,” Walden said.