Tech Policy Heats Up: An Update From the Hill

Benton Foundation

Friday, June 14, 2019

Weekly Digest

Tech Policy Heats Up: An Update From the Hill

 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 June 10-14, 2019

Robbie McBeath

Halfway into June, broadband policy is heating up. June 11 marked the one-year anniversary of the enactment of the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, which repealed net neutrality protections for broadband subscribers. The Internet “celebrated” with a day of online protests calling for the Senate to vote on pending legislation to reverse the repeal. On June 12, the Senate Commerce Committee held a Federal Communications Commission oversight hearing, with some fireworks over the frustrations of getting accurate broadband data. And the House Antitrust Subcommittee held a hearing that examined the “existential threat” online ad platforms have created for journalism. All of these issues have legislative solutions -- but will Congress feel the heat and actually pass some bills? 

Net Neutrality: Happy Anniversary?

Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of the repeal of net neutrality protections first adopted under the Obama administration. While FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order passed on a partisan vote in December 2017, it took six months for the order to be reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget and take effect.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA)
Senator Ed Markey (D-MA)

The anniversary was used as an opportunity to show how net neutrality activists and the public are still engaged on the issue. The Senate floor was the center of attention for the day’s action. Senators Ed Markey (D-MA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) asked that the Senate expedite proceedings on the Save the Internet Act, essentially a bill to restore the Obama-era net neutrality rules, which passed the House back in April. (A Congressional Review Act resolution that would have accomplished the same ends as the Save the Internet Act passed the Senate in May 2018.) But Sen. Markey’s call for unanimous consent for an up/down vote was thwarted by Senate Republicans. 

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) objected, arguing that much of what Democrats warned would happen following the net neutrality repeal has yet to take place. "What we will not do and what this President will not sign is legislation authorizing the federal government to set internet rates in the old 1934 Bell system of Title II regulation," Chairman Wicker said.

Senate FCC Oversight Hearing

Wicker's Senate Commerce Committee held an oversight hearing of the FCC on June 12th. A few key takeaways from Chairman Pai’s testimony...

The FCC will vote on new broadband data collection rules during its August open meeting. Chairman Pai said the new rules will provide more granular and accurate broadband data and maps. He said the order would require broadband providers to report "where they actually offer service below the census block level." He said the FCC would also be looking to incorporate public feedback into mapping efforts.

Chairman Wicker said at the June 12 hearing that the FCC should stop making broadband deployment funding decisions until it can get a better handle on where the money should go. The day after the hearing, Chairman Wicker introduced the Broadband DATA Act (S.1822), which calls for similar FCC actions aimed at improving the process for collecting accurate broadband availability data. S.1822 is co-sponsored by Sen. John Thune (R-SD) -- the past Commerce Committee chair who now heads the committee's Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet -- as well as Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Gary Peters (D-MI). The bill could signal Senate support for Pai's data proposal.

Chairman Pai denied that auctioning off 25 GHz spectrum will threaten important weather data collection. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has suggested much higher interference protection is needed, while Chairman Pai said that the study NOAA is citing for that position is fundamentally flawed.

“The greatest threat to a free and open internet has been the unregulated Silicon Valley tech giants that do, in fact, today decide what you see and what you don’t,” Chairman Pai said. “There’s no transparency. There’s no consumer protections and I think bipartisan members of both congressional chambers have now come to that realization.” Chairman Pai’s comments about Silicon Valley were particularly relevant, as they came a day after the tech industry received criticism at another hearing on Capitol Hill. 

Online Platforms, Journalism, and Antitrust

On June 11, the House Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust Subcommittee held a hearing, Online Platforms and Market Power, Part 1: The Free and Diverse Press, beginning its look at antitrust issues related online platforms’ enormous market power and the impact on journalism.

The newspaper industry has been looking to receive an antitrust exemption in order to negotiate collectively with digital advertising behemoths Facebook and Google. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2019 (H.R. 2054) would provide that exemption.

Under the law, which would sunset in four years, this new newspaper coalition could collectively withhold content from Google, Facebook, and other sites, and negotiate the terms under which those companies could use the newspapers’ work. Antitrust law currently prohibits such industry-wide coordination. 

At this week’s hearing, News Media Alliance President David Chavern said that concentration among the platforms means a small cadre of tech giants exercise an extreme level of control over news. At the same time, those same platforms also control the digital advertising technologies that news organizations use to monetize traffic. He called that a “dangerous combination” that is an existential threat to news organizations and their business model. “[T]he emergence of dominant tech platforms as intermediaries between news organizations and their audiences threatens to bring to naught the news industry’s investments in a digital future,” he said.

"We’re not losing business to an innovator who has found a better or more efficient way to report and investigate the news," said David Pitofsky, general counsel at News Corp. "We’re losing business because the dominant platforms deploy our news content to target our audiences to then turn around and sell that audience to the same advertisers we’re trying to serve.”

Kevin Riley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution discussed the effect on local news. “Almost always the debate about media and tech is framed in a discussion about international news brands, but the greatest peril for our nation lurks at the local level, where a regional or community newspaper must cope with fast-changing technological and financial matters,” said Riley. “It is worth considering stories that would go untold.”

Also testifying were Gene Kimmelman of Public Knowledge, Sally Hubbard of Open Markets Institute, and Matthew Schruers of the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA). 

Lawmakers stressed the seriousness of the problem, though differed a bit in how to respond.

“It is incumbent on Congress to understand the source of this problem and address it urgently. Congress has a constitutional duty to ensure markets are structured in a way that is compatible with our democratic values.” -- House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY)

“[T]he decline of the news industry is not the inevitable result of the arrival of the internet but is instead the direct consequence of enforcement choices that have created a market structure where a small number of platforms are capturing the value created by newspapers and publishers,” said Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline (D-RI). He said the free fall of journalism has happened because online platforms are capturing value without passing it along. He called his bill a life-support measure for journalism, not a long-term solution to the broader issues.

The bill’s co-sponsor, Judiciary Ranking Member Doug Collins (R-GA), was a bit more reserved, noting that this would be the first of many hearing on tech antitrust issues. He said regulatory solutions often miss the mark, so the committee needs to be careful. He also said big is not necessarily bad, adding that it was no surprise that successful companies get bigger. He warned against a "rush to [tech] judgment."

In plugging his bill, he pointed out it did not threaten to break up Big Tech or create new regulatory structures, but would instead help journalists "stop the bleeding."


Broadband policy debates certainly aren't cooling off as summer approaches. They are only heating up. But will this energy lead to any signed bills, or just leave citizens out in the cold?

To follow all of these sizzling issues and more broadband policy, be sure to subscribe to our daily emailed Headlines newsletter

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

The Ability to Pay for Broadband (Colin Rhinesmith, Bianca Reisdorf, Madison Bishop) 

Survey Explores Broadband Impact on Local Economies, Telehealth, Education (Craig Settles)

FCC Proposes Capping Fund Used to Close the Digital Divide (Robbie McBeath)

Upcoming Events

June 19 -- Scoring Congressional Broadband Proposals (SHLB Coalition)

June 19 -- Building Smart Cities and Communities at the Regional Level (NTIA)

June 20 -- Broadband for All – A Fools Errand or the Key to Economic Prosperity? (Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy Studies)

June 21 -- Technological Advisory Council (FCC)

June 24 -- Advisory Committee on Diversity and Digital Empowerment (FCC)

June 27 -- PrivacyCon 2019 (FTC)

July 2 -- Lifeline Program Consumer Support Training (FCC)

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By Robbie McBeath.