Net neutrality critic in driver's seat on GOP tech policy

Net neutrality critic in driver's seat on GOP tech policy
© Greg Nash

Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnGoogle will no longer use data from personal Gmail accounts for advertising Overnight Regulation: Labor groups fear rollback of Obama worker protection rule | Trump regs czar advances in Senate | New FCC enforcement chief Overnight Tech: Uber CEO resigns | Trump's Iowa tech trip | Dems push Sessions to block AT&T-Time Warner deal | Lawmakers warned on threat to election systems | MORE (R-Tenn.) was tapped Friday to chair a key technology subcommittee, putting her in the driver's seat on Republican efforts to pare back the controversial net neutrality rules.

As chairwoman of the House Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, Blackburn will have a prominent role in deciding Republicans' stance.

Blackburn has long been an outspoken critic of the rules passed by the Federal Communications Commission in 2015, having called them a “Trojan horse for government takeover of the internet.”

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Net neutrality, enshrined in the FCC’s landmark Open Internet Order, requires internet service providers to allow equal access to all content. It also prohibits them from letting websites pay to allow faster access to their pages.

“Last week’s vote by the FCC to regulate the Internet like a 1930s era public utility is further proof that the Obama Administration will stop at nothing in their efforts to control the Internet,” the Tennessee Republican said in March 2015 after the FCC voted in favor of the rules.

“There is nothing ‘free and open’ about this heavy-handed approach. These overreaching rules will stifle innovation, restrict freedoms, and lead to billions of dollars in new fees and taxes for American consumers.”

Democrats have hailed the rules as a centerpiece of Obama's tech policy legacy. But conservatives were angered in particular by how the law reclassified internet service providers under the law to give the FCC authority, seeing it as an example of regulatory overreach.

That provision was the subject of a fierce court challenge that ultimately failed in 2015, when a federal judge upheld the rules.

Opponents of net neutrality cheered Blackburn's new post.

“I know first-hand how passionately she feels about reorienting communications and Internet policy in a free market direction,” said Randolph May, the president of the Free State Foundation and an opponent of net neutrality.

“And I know she wants to see the net neutrality regulations curtailed. She obviously understands the issues in a substantive way and will be ready to get right to work.”

Blackburn has tried to undermine the rules by pushing her Internet Freedom Act in recent years. The legislation would override net neutrality and forbid the FCC from reinstating it in the future.

That legislation could have new life with Blackburn heading the tech subcommittee or lay the groundwork for a new deal with Democrats on the rules.

Democrats have long urged Republicans to work out a legislative fix to resolve their concerns about net neutrality while keeping the bulk of the rule in place.

“If Republicans actually want to resolve this issue in a permanent manner they need some kind of legislative compromise and Democrats are going to insist on doing something about net neutrality as part of that and the question is what,” said Berin Szoka, president of the group TechFreedom.

“That’s the situation that Marsha is going to be dealing with, and it’s really hard to predict how she or anybody else will actually handle that, but it matters significantly who is actually in the driver seat in Congress because this is the big inflection point in the future of the FCC.”

Both sides concede that net neutrality is in the crosshairs of the incoming Trump administration.

The president-elect has said little about net neutrality since a cryptic tweet in 2014 likened it to the Fairness Doctrine and alleged that it would “target conservative media.”

But Trump has appointed two outspoken critics of net neutrality, Mark Jamison and Jeffrey Eisenach, to his FCC landing team, indicating that his GOP nominees for the commission are likely to back changes.

Despite her fierce criticism of net neutrality in the past, some are optimistic that Blackburn could be the driving force behind a compromise, targeting some of the provisions of the FCC rule while preserving some of the values of net neutrality.

“She knows the difference between net neutrality (a good thing) and Title II (a bad source of authority),” said Hal Singer, a professor at Georgetown University.

“She will be pushed by some on the Right to dismantle all protections, but I hope she recognizes the value of a lasting compromise.”