House members hint at bipartisan net neutrality bill

House members hint at bipartisan net neutrality bill
© Greg Nash

Lawmakers are signaling the possibility of a bipartisan bill to replace the Obama-era net neutrality rules repealed in 2017 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), though broad disagreement between the parties appears to remain an obstacle.

Top Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee suggested during a hearing on Thursday that they were open to working with Republicans on open internet legislation.

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“Until strong open internet protections are enacted, our only hope is the millions of Americans who are fed up will hold Congress accountable for passing strong net neutrality laws,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneOvernight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — Deal on surprise medical bills faces obstacles | House GOP unveils rival drug pricing measure ahead of Pelosi vote | Justices to hear case over billions in ObamaCare payments Obstacles remain for deal on surprise medical bills This week: House impeachment inquiry hits crucial stretch MORE (D-N.J.), the committee’s chairman. “And I look forward to working in a bipartisan manner to return strong safeguards to the internet.”

Democrats had been reluctant to legislate on net neutrality in the year since the FCC voted along party lines to repeal the rules out of concern that a bill would not be able to match the strength of the 2015 regulations. Advocates have also been hoping that a federal appeals court would strike down the 2017 repeal order.

Thursday’s contentious hearing on the net neutrality repeal showed that there’s still a broad partisan divide that will have to be bridged on the issue in order to come up with workable legislation.

Republicans introduced a trio of bills on Wednesday that would codify some of the principles of net neutrality, but they were broadly panned by consumer advocates as riddled with loopholes that would allow internet service providers to abuse their powers.

There’s bipartisan agreement on the need for rules preventing internet service providers from blocking and discriminating against web traffic, but how the rules will be enforced will likely be a sticking point.

Republicans opposed the Obama-era FCC’s reclassification of the broadband industry as telecommunications services under Title II of the Communications Act. The designation opened up the industry to utility-style regulation and moved it under the FCC’s jurisdiction.

Republicans at Thursday’s hearing said the reclassification was overly burdensome.

"It throws away 20 years of a bipartisan consensus that built the modern internet and replaces it with authority that dates back to the early 1900s used to govern monopoly telephone companies,” said Rep. Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenOvernight Energy: Trump rolls back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards | Controversial Keystone XL construction to proceed | Pressure mounts to close national parks amid pandemic Infrastructure bill gains new steam as coronavirus worsens Critics blast Trump mileage rollback, citing environment and health concerns MORE (Ore.), the top Republican on the committee. “It may innocuous, ‘Title II,’ but it gives enormous power to the federal government, an unlimited authority to micromanage every single aspect of a provider’s business, including rates.”

Democrats and net neutrality advocates maintain that giving the FCC the authority to oversee broadband companies is the best way to enforce open internet rules.

But it’s unclear where they will draw the line in the legislative process.

Speaking with reporters after the hearing, Rep. Mike DoyleMichael (Mike) F. DoyleFCC rejects petition to probe broadcasts of Trump coronavirus briefings Bottom Line Hillicon Valley: Trump turns up heat on Apple over gunman's phone | Mnuchin says Huawei won't be 'chess piece' in trade talks | Dems seek briefing on Iranian cyber threats | Buttigieg loses cyber chief MORE (D-Pa.), who chairs the Commerce subcommittee on technology, wouldn’t say whether Title II would need to be a part of any net neutrality legislation but said that it would have to be tough enough to properly police the industry.

“We want to make sure that whatever gets done and however it’s done, that there’s protections for consumers for things that we don’t even foresee yet in the future, because the technology changes so quickly,” Doyle said.

“It’s got to have strong provisions in it and if we can work towards that end, then anything is possible,” he added.