Congress girds for net neutrality battle

The fight over “net neutrality” is about to spill into the open on Capitol Hill.

Days after Republicans unveiled draft legislation to create rules of the road for online service companies, panels in both the House and Senate will consider the issue on Wednesday, in what is shaping up to be a major congressional battle over the government's role in overseeing the Internet.

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“We’re hoping that having that draft out there now will get some people talking and get a discussion going, and hopefully people will come to the conclusion that this is a better approach,” Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneTrump second-term plans remain a mystery to GOP Republicans fear backlash over Trump's threatened veto on Confederate names McConnell: Trump shouldn't veto defense bill over renaming Confederate bases MORE (R-S.D.) told reporters on Tuesday.

While lawmakers had previously debated net neutrality rules, the real fight had largely been confined to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has been working on new regulations since its previous rules were tossed out by an appeals court last year.

The increasing likelihood that the commission will enact tougher rules that treat the Web like traditional phone lines, however, has set GOP lawmakers scrambling to draft legislation to preempt the move.

On Friday, they released a draft bill to draw some red lines on Web service companies such as Comcast or Time Warner Cable, but also hamstring the FCC in other ways.

The position is a dramatic turnaround from just a few months ago, when Republicans insisted that net neutrality rules were unnecessary, and would amount to needless government intervention that could threaten the spirit of the Internet.

That's all changed in recent weeks, as the FCC has seemed increasingly likely to reclassify broadband Internet as a “telecommunications” service under Title II of the Communications Act, instead of an “information service,” as it is currently treated. President Obama and many other Democrats and online activists had urged the FCC to take that controversial step, which would give the agency more power over the Web.

Both the Senate Commerce Committee and the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on technology will hold hearings on Wednesday to explore ways that Congress can act in place of the FCC.

On Tuesday, a number of think tanks and advocacy groups that tend to resist government regulations — including Americans for Tax Reform, Americans for Prosperity and TechFreedom — urged lawmakers to pass legislation, but declined to discuss the draft bill released by Thune and other leaders.

“Congress, not three unelected officials, should decide the future of the Internet,” the groups wrote. 

The new GOP bill would prevent Internet service providers from blocking or slowing a user’s traffic to a webpage and from creating “fast lanes” for websites that pay extra money. It would also extend those regulations to people accessing the Web on their tablets and smartphones, unlike previous rules from the FCC that only applied to wired Internet lines.

At the same time, though, the draft bill would specifically clarify that broadband Internet access is an “information service” under the law, to prevent the FCC from enacting tougher, utility-style rules. It would also strip the FCC of other legal tools that it could use to go after companies.

Those provisions could be a deal-killer for Democrats.

“I strongly believe that we need the strongest protections, and right now I don’t think that bill does it,” Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyGOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday The Hill's Campaign Report: Jacksonville mandates face coverings as GOP convention approaches Steyer endorses Markey in Massachusetts Senate primary MORE (D-Mass.) said on Tuesday. On Friday, he called the bill a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he was “happy to talk” with colleagues about a possible legislative compromise, but said he did not support the current draft. In the meantime, the FCC should take “bold and significant action,” he said.

Conservative Republicans may mount an equally strong opposition.

Many GOP lawmakers have objected to any type of regulation of the Internet and their decision to hold out could stymie the effort to pass some compromise bill.

For instance, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGianforte halts in-person campaigning after wife, running mate attend event with Guilfoyle Trump administration grants funding extension for Texas testing sites Hillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill banning federal government use of facial recognition tech | House lawmakers roll out legislation to establish national cyber director | Top federal IT official to step down MORE (R-Texas) — a member of the Commerce Committee who will likely attend Wednesday’s hearing — last year called net neutrality “ObamaCare for the Internet.” 

So far, he has declined to weigh in on the new draft bill either way.

“We’re still looking at the legislation,” he said on Tuesday. 

Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonNASA names DC headquarters after agency's first Black female engineer Mary W. Jackson NASA, SpaceX and the private-public partnership that caused the flight of the Crew Dragon Lobbying world MORE (Fla.), the top Democrat on the Commerce Committee, has been in talks with Republicans about their draft, but it’s unclear how productive they have been.

“Usually when it’s getting beat up by both the left and the right it tends to be somewhere close to being where we should end up,” Thune said on Tuesday. “And that’s close to what’s happening with the draft.”