The Washington Post
As FCC majority stalls, Democrats are planning a sweeping net neutrality bill
Democratic lawmakers’ inability to secure a majority at the Federal Communications Commission has stymied plans for the agency to restore Obamaera net neutrality rules.
Amid the impasse, lawmakers are renewing efforts to take the issue into their own hands with a sweeping new bill, according to a copy obtained by The Technology 202.
Led by Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-mass.) and Ron Wyden (D- Ore.), the Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act would reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service and open companies like AT&T and Verizon up to stricter oversight by the FCC.
While the two-page bill is seemingly simple in scope, it would have massive implications in addition to reinstating net neutrality, the rules that bar internet service providers from blocking or throttling content. It would shift how aggressively the FCC can regulate issues like internet pricing, consumer privacy and competition in the broadband market.
Lawmakers plan to introduce the bill in coming weeks, likely before the August recess, according to two people familiar with the negotiations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private talks.
Rep. Doris Matsui (D- Calif.) is slated to introduce a counterpart measure in the House, one of the people said.
The bill is a major new marker in the contentious debate over net neutrality and telecom regulation. If enacted, it would fulfill a long-running Democratic priority.
In 2015, a Democratic FCC majority voted to regulate broadband as a telecommunications service under what’s known as Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. The move opened telecom companies up to more stringent, utility-style regulation, like what exists for electricity and water, and ushered in the antidiscrimination rules known as net neutrality.
But in 2017, a Republican FCC majority voted to repeal the rules under Chairman Ajit Pai, who argued that they were “heavyhanded” regulations that did more harm than good.
Since then, Democrats on Capitol Hill have repeatedly tried to revive net neutrality, including through a legislative process that lets Congress revisit and reject decisions by agencies.
But those efforts have run into significant opposition from Republicans.
After President Biden took office, net neutrality advocates called on the FCC to reinstate the rules. But Democrats still lack a majority at the agency because of delays to the nomination of former FCC staffer and prominent net neutrality advocate Gigi Sohn.
The bill is expected to face opposition from Republicans, making odds for passage steep.
But some proponents hope other factors could shake up the debate.
That includes the coronavirus pandemic, according to one of the people familiar with discussions. Proponents think it has laid bare the necessity of internet access, they said, and could make it more difficult to argue against treating broadband as a utility service.
Some net neutrality advocates also think Republican calls to designate social media companies as common carriers could make their positions more untenable, the person said.
Republicans have floated the idea as a means to address an alleged anti-conservative bias by companies like Facebook and Twitter. By treating them as common carriers, Republicans have argued, social networks could theoretically be barred from discriminating against viewpoints.
Arguing that social media platforms — but not internet service providers — should be regulated like common carriers “quickly becomes gymnastics,” the person said.
Markey and Wyden’s offices declined to comment on plans for the bill.
But Markey spokeswoman Rosemary Boeglin said in a statement that it’s “more clear than ever that broadband internet is an essential utility.”
“Senator Markey firmly believes the Federal Communications Commission’s authority should reflect that, so it can fulfill its obligations to the public by reinstating net neutrality rules, protecting consumers, and taking other critical steps to create a just digital future,” Boeglin said.
Wyden spokesman Keith Chu said that “Ajit Pai's rollback of net neutrality was a huge loss for competition and privacy,” adding that Wyden “still believes that net neutrality is the foundation of an open internet that works for everyone — not just Big Cable and big incumbents.”
Spokespeople for Matsui did not respond to a request for comment Sunday. Markey teased plans to release the measure last year — but it’s yet to be unveiled.