House to re-write foundational communications law

The leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee announced Tuesday that they will begin re-writing the Communications Act, a foundational law that regulates the television, telephone and Internet industries. 

Updating the act will be a multi-year effort, and each potential change will likely prompt intense lobbying from powerful industry groups. 

The Communications Act, which outlines the power of the Federal Communications Commission, dates back to 1934, and was last updated in 1996. 

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House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said the communications and technology sectors were "stalwarts of our national economy" throughout the economic downturn.

"We must ensure that our laws make sense for today but are also ready for the innovations of tomorrow,” he said.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the chairman of the subcommittee on Communications and Technology, said that when the Communications Act was last updated 18 years ago, "no one could have dreamed" of the coming advances in the Internet.

"Written during the Great Depression and last updated when 56 kilobits per second via dial-up modem was state of the art, the Communications Act is now painfully out of date,” he said.

The committee will begin its review with a series of hearings and white papers next year. 

The lawmakers announced the update during a Google Plus Hangout, an online video chat.

Walden said the technology world moves so quickly that Google is now an "elder statesman," but he noted that the company didn't even exist the last time Congress updated the communications law.

Industry groups issued statements applauding the lawmakers and agreeing that the law needs to be revised.

But the broad support doesn't reflect any consensus for how to change the law. Many potential revisions could boost some companies, while undermining others.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) introduced a bill last month that would provide legal protections for online video services, like Netflix and Hulu. Although his bill could be included in a re-write of the Communications Act, House Republicans have expressed little interest in the legislation. 

Lawmakers will also have to grapple with how much authority the FCC should have over the Internet — a recurring and controversial topic. 

Robert McDowell, a former Republican FCC Commissioner who has previously called for a re-write of the Communications Act, joined Upton and Walden for the Google Plus video.

"My hat's off to you. This is going to be a long undertaking and a lot of work, but I'm absolutely thrilled you're watching it," McDowell said.

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