The Washington Post

As FCC majority stalls, Democrats are planning a sweeping net neutrality bill

- CRISTIANO LIMA

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.

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