Net Neutrality Bill Clears House of Representatives for the First Time Ever

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Friday, April 12, 2019

Weekly Digest

Net Neutrality Bill Clears House of Representatives for the First Time Ever

 You’re reading the Benton Foundation’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) telecommunications stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of April 8-12, 2019

Robbie McBeath

On April 10, 2019, in a 232-to-190 vote divided along party lines, the House of Representatives voted to approve the Save the Internet Act (HR 1644). In doing so, Democrats made good on a promise that became a rallying cry in many progressive circles during the 2018 election: restore net neutrality. For the first time ever, net neutrality legislation has cleared the House of Representatives.

The Save the Internet Act

The Save the Internet Act would repeal the Federal Communications Commission's Restoring Internet Freedom Order adopted in 2017 (although the order did not go into effect until 2018).

House Vote on Save the Internet Act
House Vote on the Save the Internet Act

The act was amended on its way to passage by the full House of Representatives. The legislation now includes the following provisions:

  1. An amendment sponsored by Rep Ben McAdams (D-UT) which affirms that internet service providers can still block unlawful content, such as child pornography or copyright-infringing materials.
  2. An amendment sponsored by Rep David Trone (D-MD) that finds that annual FCC reports on the state of broadband deployment are important to fostering further deployment and that Congress relies on the accuracy of these reports.
  3. An amendment introduced by Rep Jennifer Wexton (D-VA) that requires the FCC to submit to Congress within 30 days a plan for how the FCC will evaluate and address problems with the collection on Form 477 of data regarding the deployment of broadband Internet access service. [Form 477 is used by the FCC to determine which providers are servicing which areas and it is the government's main source of data used for identifying underserved areas of opportunity.]
  4. An amendment introduced by Sharice Davids (D-KS) that requires that within 1 year of enactment, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) shall produce a report examining the FCC's efforts to assess competition in the wireline and wireless broadband internet access markets, and how the FCC can better assess competition, and what steps, if any the FCC can take to better increase competition in the wireless and wireline broadband internet access markets.
  5. An amendment sponsored by Rep Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) that requires the GAO to determine the accuracy and granularity of broadband maps produced by the FCC, and to submit to Congress a report that identifies programs and actions restored under 2(b) that rely on these maps and that makes recommendations for how the FCC can produce more accurate maps.
  6. An amendment sponsored by Rep Antonio Delgado (D-NY) that requires the GAO to produce a report, within 1 year, reviewing the benefits to consumers of broadband internet access providers offering broadband internet access service on a standalone basis and what steps Congress can take to increase the availability of standalone broadband internet access service to consumers, particularly those living in rural areas.
  7. An amendment from Rep Anthony Brindisi (D-NY) that requires the GAO to produce a report about the ways in which the US government can promote the deployment of broadband Internet access service, especially to rural areas and areas currently unserved by high-speed broadband access.
  8. An amendment from Rep Greg Stanton (D-AZ) that directs the Chairman of the FCC to engage tribal stakeholders and providers to ensure accessible and affordable broadband on tribal lands.

Competing Visions of Net Neutrality

“The parties’ competing visions — and seemingly widening political divide — played out as debate began on the House floor,” wrote Tony Romm and Brain Fung. 

House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D-PA) said the bill would give the “FCC the authority to protect consumers now and in the future.”

Full House Commerce Committee Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-OR) blasted the bill as “another plank in [Democrats’] socialist agenda.”

“We all want an open and free internet – a permanent solution to ensure this phenomenon continues to power opportunity and innovation," Walden said. “Unfortunately, Democrats refused to work in a bipartisan way to achieve that goal. Their solution is not real net neutrality. Net neutrality does not require a government takeover of the internet. And everyone knows their bill will never become law.”

“What my friend calls a takeover of the internet, we call protecting consumers,” countered Chairman Doyle. 

The partisan division echoed outside the halls of Congress. 

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said, “This legislation is a big-government solution in search of a problem. The Internet is free and open, while faster broadband is being deployed across America. This bill should not and will not become law.”

But FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks disagreed, saying:

I’m glad the House passed the Save the Internet Act today. It protects net neutrality by restoring enforceable rules and reinstating the FCC as the cop on the beat responsible for protecting consumers. The FCC was established to promote and police the communications networks of this country.  Broadband is the communications network of our present and future. The endurance of the open internet cannot be left to chance or the whims of massive profit-maximizing corporations. This administration’s hasty, careless abandonment of the carefully crafted, common sense 2015 Open Internet framework was ill-considered and flat out wrong.  Along the way, the Commission ignored the will of millions of people and proved itself to be out of touch with regular folks across the country, regardless of their politics, who rely on unfettered internet access as a precondition to participation in our society, economy, and democracy.

The division was also echoed by industry and consumer advocacy groups. 

“Today’s House vote was a disappointing wrong turn that will only lead to a dead end,” said NCTA - The Internet & Television association which lobbies on behalf of large cable companies. “Consumers should be frustrated that House Democratic leadership has chosen to pursue a partisan path which will ultimately fail to deliver the net neutrality protections that every stakeholder agrees is important. Despite this setback, our industry remains committed to working on a bipartisan solution and hopes that the end of this political exercise will clear the way for more thoughtful and sincere efforts to protect consumers without outdated and burdensome overregulation."

Free Press Action President and CEO Craig Aaron said, "Today’s vote is a tremendous victory for the millions of people across the country who’ve been calling, writing, tweeting and visiting their members of Congress to urge them to fight for a free and open internet. The energy behind this bill came from the grassroots, not big companies, but there were plenty of industry lobbyists trying to sink it. The overwhelming show of support for the Save the Internet Act proves how important and popular Net Neutrality has become."

"Outside the beltway, net neutrality is a no-brainer issue," said Michael Copps, former FCC commissioner and now special advisor to Common Cause. "An overwhelming majority of Americans support strong net neutrality rules including 80 percent or higher from Republicans and Independents. That’s because they understand net neutrality is the pre-requisite for an open and citizen-friendly internet where broadband has become the essential communications service for a 21st century democracy. Today’s vote reflects the will of the American people who demand an open internet to protect free speech, civic engagement, equal opportunity, and innovation." 

The Road Ahead

The bill may face a challenge getting Senate approval. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said the bill is "dead on arrival in the Senate."

And, there's always the threat of a Presidential veto -- a threat that got real this week. 

On April 8, the White House's Office of Management and Budget advised President Donald Trump to veto the legislation. To justify the veto, the statement painted a picture of surging broadband investment and robust new networks, free to flourish now that Title II was out of the way. 

But Karl Bode was among those who called out OMB's "fuzzy math." "Unfortunately for the White House, there’s no evidence to suggest any of those improvements had anything to do with killing net neutrality," he wrote. "Some of the data points aren’t accurate, and others are the result of policies from past administrations."

Concerning the threatened veto, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) said, “I think the president, as he heads into 2020, when he sees a groundswell, a juggernaut coming at him, I think he’s going to change.”

Despite the tough political road ahead for the bill in the Senate and from the White House, ensuring net neutrality is wildly popular with the public and across Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. If you recall, when the Senate previously considered a Congressional Review Act resolution to repeal the FCC’s 2017 order, the measure passed 52-47.

Because of this, some lawmakers are ultimately hopeful of the legislation becoming law. House Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) argued the Democratic-backed bill could lead to a bipartisan dialogue. “I don’t know if they’ll pass this bill,” he said. “[But] it may very well be a traditional thing where the Senate passes its bill and we go to conference to come up with a consensus …They may differ on how and what it should cover, but they still think we should do it.”

For now, we can appreciate that a net neutrality bill, for the first time, passed through the House of Representatives. Where it goes from here remains to be seen. 

You can follow along with the on-going net neutrality saga by subscribing to Headlines

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By Robbie McBeath.