Lawmakers are pushing ahead with two bills that would tweak certain parts of the Federal Communications Commission’s controversial net-neutrality rules—the signature Internet-policy achievement of the Obama administration.
But even as Republicans try to chip away at the sweeping Internet regulations, the real attention remains fixed on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is expected to soon rule on the broadband industry’s lawsuit against the FCC.
As long as a Democrat is in the White House, the courts pose the only real threat to the regulations, which require that Internet traffic be treated equally. Democrats consider the rules crucial for ensuring that Internet users are free to access the content of their choice, while Republicans consider them an illegal power grab that will burden businesses.
“Everybody is waiting on the court decision. Everybody is also thinking about their campaigns at home and, of course, their campaign contributions,” said Harold Feld, the senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a consumer-advocacy group that supports the FCC’s rules. “Voters do care if you have done absolutely nothing. … You have to show you haven’t been spending the whole two years playing Minesweeper.”
So while the debate over net neutrality is deeply partisan, Republicans and Democrats managed to find a sliver of common ground Wednesday by approving the Small Business Broadband Deployment Act by a 411-0 vote.
The bill would expand an exemption for small Internet-service providers (those with fewer than 250,000 subscribers) from the “transparency” portion of the net-neutrality rules, which mandates that companies publicly disclose their network-management practices. After negotiations with Democrats, Republicans agreed to end that exemption after five years. The legislation wouldn’t affect the core of the rules, which bar Internet providers from blocking websites, selectively slowing down traffic, or creating special “fast lanes” for companies that pay.
While most Republicans would prefer to repeal the regulations altogether, they see the transparency carve-out for small businesses as a change that they can actually pass into law. The White House has said that, while it is “strongly committed to a free and open Internet,” it will not oppose the House bill.
“This legislation will protect small businesses and ultimately benefit consumers,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican. “Keeping these entrepreneurs focused on laying fiber, building towers, and improving service means a better Internet experience for their customers, and more jobs.”
Rep. Dave Loebsack, an Iowa Democrat, called the bill a “common-sense, bipartisan measure” that will give “small Internet-service providers throughout the country flexibility to focus their resources on deploying broadband and serving our constituents.”
Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican, and Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, plan to offer a counterpart bill as an amendment to FCC reauthorization legislation.
While the small-business bill won unanimous support in the House, Republicans are also pushing ahead with a more partisan change to the FCC’s rules. The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved legislation on Tuesday that would bar the FCC from regulating the rates that broadband providers charge for their service. While both President Obama and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler have said they don’t intend to dictate broadband retail prices, Democrats are worried that the language of the bill could seriously hamstring the FCC.
It could, for example, keep the FCC from going after wireless providers that exempt favored content from data caps, they warn. “I cannot support a bill that prevents the agency from protecting consumers from discriminatory practices,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, the top Democrat on the committee. “And I cannot support a bill that undercuts the FCC’s net-neutrality rules.”
It remains unclear whether Republicans will try to scale back the bill to win over Democrats or whether they’ll push it ahead in partisan votes. But no matter the fate of their rate-regulation bill, the real critical moment for the net-neutrality rules will likely come when the D.C. Circuit issues its decision.
A coalition of major broadband providers sued the FCC, arguing that the agency overstepped its authority and is violating their constitutional rights. A panel of the D.C. Circuit heard oral arguments in the case in December, and is expected to issue its decision this spring.