Net Neutrality Headlines FCC Oversight and Reauthorization Hearing

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The House Commerce Committee’s Communications and Technology Subcommittee held a hearing on July 25, 2017. Lawmakers came to talk Federal Communications Commission oversight; they came to talk FCC oversight; but as with most telecommunications policy discussions these days, network neutrality grabbed the headlines.

Full Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) announced that he will hold a hearing on September 7 entitled “Ground Rules for the Internet Ecosystem.” He sent invitations to CEOs of leading tech companies -- including Facebook, Alphabet, Amazon, and Netflix -- and broadband providers -- including Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, and Charter Communications -- requesting they testify.

“A strong consensus is forming across party lines and across industries that it’s time for Congress to call a halt on the back-and-forth and set clear net neutrality ground rules for the internet,” said Chairman Walden. “In some form or another, we have been working for at least 20 years on the intertwined goals of incentivizing the huge investments needed to connect Americans, while keeping the internet open and protecting consumer privacy. With almost everyone in agreement about fundamental principles to prevent anti-competitive behavior such as throttling and blocking, I think we are closer than ever to achieving a lasting resolution. The time has come to get everyone to the table and get this figured out.”

In a letter requesting their appearance, Chairman Walden said the open internet rules put in place during the Obama administration — which subject broadband providers to utility-like regulation — “disrupted the longstanding regulatory balance that for years allowed the internet to grow and thrive.” He added, “With your help, I know we can craft a fair, predictable and sustainable solution that not only benefits edge providers and internet service providers, but also the billions of consumers worldwide that deserve a free and open internet.”

Chairman Walden is joined by his counterpart in the Senate, Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, in a desire to adopt legislation that will end the net neutrality debate.

But these lawmakers so far have offered few specifics, and for the moment, they don’t have much Democratic support. Many in that party have rallied to save the FCC’s existing rules, preferring the Obama administration’s approach. Sen Cory Booker (D-NJ), for example, fears that any attempt to tackle net neutrality with Republicans in charge of the White House and Congress will result in rules that are too weak — and give broadband internet access service providers too much power to tamper with internet traffic.

In her opening remarks at the hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) bristled at the suggestion that Republicans are opposed to network neutrality. "Let me be clear. Republicans have always supported a free and open internet." We are trying to "restore the culture of humility lacking under the regulatory cloud left” by former-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. She said it was time to move past partisan rhetoric and pass legislation clarifying net neutrality oversight. Subcommittee Vice Chairman Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ) agreed and said there was common ground on the need for net neutrality and added that a light-touch approach has strong support.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Mike Doyle (D-PA) pointed to the over 12 million net neutrality comments in the FCC's public file as evidence that there was nothing wrong with the FCC's current net neutrality rules. He said the rules are working and to roll them back would hurt small business and "regular people." Rep Anna Eshoo (D-CA) agreed and said the FCC is barreling down the road toward eliminating critical protections and making it clear that start-ups and small business input is not as valued as special interests. “If the FCC moves ahead with its net neutrality plan the consequences will be severe,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), the ranking member of the full House Commerce Committee. “Their plan will have a chilling influence on our democracy, cut away at our connections with each other, and limit economic opportunities for the future.”

Morning Consult reports that the key takeaway from the hearing is that Democratic and Republican members of Congress both support net neutrality — they just have different definitions for the term.

Chairman Walden asked all the FCC commissioners if they support net neutrality. Chairman Pai said he favors “a free and open internet.” But Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) took issue, telling him that his chairmanship “rests on the altar of dismantling net neutrality as we know it.”

“With all due respect to you, I don’t think it’s a credible statement to say that you support it,” she added.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said that maintaining classification of broadband services under Title II of the Communications Act will ensure competition and drive greater service availability. “Taking away Title II for broadband undercuts our ability to ensure universal service for broadband by taking away our clearest source of authority to make sure all Americans are connected,” Commissioner Clyburn said. “Undoing our classification of broadband as a Title II service also harms the FCC’s ability to enable competition. There is specific authority in sections 224 and 253 of the Communications Act that allows the FCC to enable competitive access to monopoly infrastructure, and to remove other barriers to competition. Without Title II, it will be far more difficult for the Commission to enact policies to enable competition.” Commissioner Clyburn also pointed to how Title II helps to ensure privacy.

“We adopted rules of the road for broadband privacy last October and they were stripped away earlier this year with the passage of the Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution of disapproval which means today, there are no comprehensive rules on the books protecting broadband consumer privacy for Americans,” Commissioner Clyburn said.

But FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly said “the term net neutrality means so many different things these days than it once did.”

GOP lawmakers presented themselves as advocates of the concept of net neutrality, while simultaneously targeting the 2015 Open Internet Order which reclassified broadband Internet access service as a Title II service. Chairman Blackburn, for example was drawing a distinction between supporting a rollback of the net neutrality protections and the idea that such a move would limit internet access for users, saying that “Republicans have always supported a free and open internet.” Republicans say net neutrality limits investment and growth of internet service providers, while advocates say a rollback of the Obama-era regulation would allow ISPs to throttle, block or slow connectivity. Their argument echoed one that has been used by ISPs like Comcast and Verizon.

“Everybody says they’re for an open internet,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT). “The question I have is: Why change the existing regime where everyone agrees that there is an open internet?”

Past network neutrality, the hearing considered a discussion draft reflecting, among other things, the Commerce Committee’s ongoing efforts to improve the FCC’s process and transparency. Here’s some quick notes:

  1. Chairman Pallone questioned Chairman Pai about decisions that have favored Sinclair Broadcast Group. He asked if the Trump Administration has tried to influence these actions. Chairman Pai answered that the White House has not contacted him about the proposed merger of Sinclair and Tribune or the FCC's decision to restore the UHF discount, which helped pave the way for that deal.
  2. Commissioner Clyburn criticized FCC Chairman Ajit’s Pai decision to allow Sinclair to purchase of Bonten's seven stations. She told the subcommittee that she was kept in the dark about the bureau-level decision, which, she suggested, was hardly in keeping with Chairman Pai's promise for more transparency.
  3. Chairman Pai warned the subcommittee that unless Congress authorizes more money, broadcasters will have to pay some portion of their post-incentive auction repack expenses. FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly testified that it may be a little early to declare the $1.75 billion post-auction repack fund insufficient.
  4. Chairman Pai said that if the facts warrant and the law allows it, the FCC will be aggressive about freeing up TV band white spaces for rural broadband.

Chairman Pai said that if the facts warrant and the law allows it, the FCC will be aggressive about freeing up TV band white spaces for rural broadband. Background Memo (Subcommittee staff) Lawmakers are calling for a net neutrality faceoff between Google and Comcast, among others (Washington Post) House Calls Edge Providers, ISPs to Testify at New Hearing (B&C) House Republicans invite tech, telecom CEOs to testify on net neutrality (The Hill) Republicans want the CEOs of Facebook, Google, AT&T and Comcast to testify to Congress about solving net neutrality (recode) Net neutrality faceoff: Congress summons ISPs and websites to hearing (ars technica) FCC’s Clyburn: Undoing Title II broadband classification harms our ability to enable universal broadband service (Fierce) Lawmakers Spar Over True Meaning of Net Neutrality (Morning Consult)