Republicans Are Desperate for a Net-Neutrality Compromise

Lawmakers are scrambling to find an alternative to expansive utility-style regulations.

National Journal
Brendan Sasso
Add to Briefcase
Brendan Sasso
Jan. 8, 2015, 8:17 a.m.

For years, fierce op­pos­i­tion to net-neut­ral­ity reg­u­la­tion has been an art­icle of faith for Re­pub­lic­ans.

The party in­cluded the is­sue in its 2012 plat­form, and Sen. Ted Cruz mem­or­ably re­ferred to it as “Obama­care for the In­ter­net.”

But now, with the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion head­ing to­ward strin­gent net-neut­ral­ity reg­u­la­tions that would treat the In­ter­net like a util­ity, Re­pub­lic­ans are scram­bling to find an al­tern­at­ive solu­tion.

South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the new chair­man of the Sen­ate Com­merce Com­mit­tee, is work­ing on a com­prom­ise bill that he says would ad­dress the con­cerns of net-neut­ral­ity ad­voc­ates without in­vok­ing util­ity-style powers.

“We think a le­gis­lat­ive route is a bet­ter way to go, and we’ve de­veloped some lan­guage that we think ad­dresses a lot of the con­cerns that Demo­crats have raised, but does it without that heavy reg­u­lat­ory ap­proach that they’re ad­voc­at­ing,” he ex­plained to re­port­ers this week.

A spokes­man for the House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee said that Chair­man Fred Up­ton and Com­mu­nic­a­tions Sub­com­mit­tee Chair­man Greg Walden are also try­ing to find a “sus­tain­able bi­par­tis­an path for­ward that won’t end up in court and provides con­sumers the pro­tec­tions they de­serve, the in­nov­at­ive choices they want, and the cer­tainty that will en­sure con­tin­ued in­vest­ment in the In­ter­net.”

Re­pub­lic­ans know that to have any hope of stop­ping the FCC from claim­ing broad new powers over the In­ter­net, they’ll need sup­port from Demo­crats. A straight re­peal of net neut­ral­ity reg­u­la­tions would face a cer­tain veto from Pres­id­ent Obama.

It’s un­clear wheth­er any Demo­crats will sign on to com­prom­ise le­gis­la­tion. Thune ex­plained that he’s aim­ing to pro­duce a bill to pree­mpt an FCC vote (which is cur­rently slated for Feb. 26), but he ad­mit­ted that Demo­crats are more in­clined to wait to see what the agency does.

Sen. Bill Nel­son, the top Demo­crat on the Sen­ate Com­merce Com­mit­tee, de­clined to say wheth­er he’ll back Thune’s ef­forts. Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic Lead­er Harry Re­id vowed this week that any at­tempt to weak­en net neut­ral­ity would be “met with a swift and uni­fied Demo­crat­ic op­pos­i­tion.”

Sup­port­ers of net neut­ral­ity ar­gue that In­ter­net ser­vice pro­viders shouldn’t be al­lowed to block on­line con­tent or fa­vor some web­sites over oth­ers. They fear that a mul­ti­t­iered In­ter­net with “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” would be­ne­fit gi­ant cor­por­a­tions at the ex­pense of users and small start-ups.

Re­pub­lic­ans have long viewed net-neut­ral­ity reg­u­la­tion as un­ne­ces­sary gov­ern­ment con­trol of the In­ter­net. Their sud­den change of heart comes as the FCC ap­pears ready to claim even broad­er au­thor­ity over the In­ter­net.

All in­dic­a­tions are that the FCC will heed Obama’s call for the agency to clas­si­fy broad­band In­ter­net as a “tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions ser­vice” un­der Title II of the Com­mu­nic­a­tions Act.

The FCC first en­acted net-neut­ral­ity rules in 2010, but a fed­er­al court struck them down early last year. The only way to en­act new rules that can hold up in court, In­ter­net act­iv­ists say, is for the FCC to in­voke its sweep­ing au­thor­it­ies un­der Title II, which it cur­rently uses to reg­u­late land­line tele­phones.

FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er pro­posed new net-neut­ral­ity rules last May that wouldn’t have used Title II, but he seems to have re­versed course in the face of a massive pub­lic back­lash and Obama’s en­dorse­ment of Title II in Novem­ber.

Speak­ing at the in­ter­na­tion­al CES con­fer­ence in Las Ve­gas on Wed­nes­day, Wheel­er out­lined the ad­vant­ages of us­ing Title II and dis­missed the con­cerns of the broad­band in­dustry that it will stifle growth.

Ap­ply­ing Title II to the In­ter­net is a night­mare scen­ario for In­ter­net pro­viders such as Com­cast, Ve­r­i­zon, and AT&T, who warn that the sec­tion would crush their in­dustry with bur­den­some and an­ti­quated reg­u­la­tions.

The FCC could use Title II to not only over­see how the pro­viders man­age traffic, but also set re­tail prices, im­pose new gov­ern­ment fees, and de­term­ine which cus­tom­ers they have to serve. Wheel­er has said he would waive un­ne­ces­sary pro­vi­sions of Title II, but that has been little com­fort to the broad­band pro­viders.

Real­iz­ing they need a bet­ter strategy than total op­pos­i­tion, the in­dustry groups have been ur­ging Re­pub­lic­ans to mod­er­ate their stance on net neut­ral­ity. Even the old 2010 reg­u­la­tions would be prefer­able to a Title II re­gime for the broad­band pro­viders.

“If they do this un­der Title II, it’s go­ing to cre­ate all kinds of op­por­tun­it­ies for reg­u­lat­ory shenanigans down the road that can be very harm­ful to in­nov­a­tion and very harm­ful to con­sumers,” Thune told re­port­ers.

Passing com­prom­ise le­gis­la­tion will be a tough task. Net neut­ral­ity ad­voc­ates see little reas­on to com­prom­ise just as they are on the brink of a ma­jor vic­tory at the FCC. And it’s hard to ima­gine that con­ser­vat­ives, who for years have de­cried net neut­ral­ity as a gov­ern­ment takeover of the In­ter­net, will sud­denly vote for a bill lead­ing to tough new reg­u­la­tions.

Thune de­clined to dis­cuss spe­cif­ics of his draft bill, but Demo­crats will be un­likely to sup­port any­thing that leaves room for pay-for-pri­or­ity In­ter­net traffic deals.

Demo­crats are also likely to de­mand that the new rules ap­ply to In­ter­net ser­vice on cell phones, even though the 2010 rules largely ex­emp­ted cel­lu­lar ser­vice. AT&T and Ve­r­i­zon are strongly op­posed to in­clud­ing cel­lu­lar ser­vice in the new reg­u­la­tions, and it will be tough for Re­pub­lic­ans to give in on the point. 

—This art­icle was up­dated at 2:56 p.m.

What We're Following See More »
Gov. Scott Wants to Raise Gun-Purchase Age to 21
17 hours ago
Gates Expected to Plead Guilty, Cooperate with Mueller
18 hours ago

Former Trump campaign adviser Rick Gates is expected to plead guilty to a raft of new tax and fraud charges filed against him by special counsel Robert Mueller on Thursday. Gates is expected to cooperate with Mueller's investigation.

Mueller Hits Manafort, Gates with New Charges
1 days ago

Robert Mueller announced new charges against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort advisor Rick Gates. "The new indictment contains 32 counts, including tax charges." The pair had been indicted on 12 charges in October. Since then, Gates's attorneys have asked to be excused from the case.

FBI Failed To Act On Parkland Shooter Tip
1 days ago

The FBI has reported that it failed to respond to a warning from "a person close to" Nikolas Cruz, the teen accused of killing 17 people at Parkland High School on Thursday. "It was the second time the FBI apparently failed to follow up on Cruz." On the first occasion, it failed to properly investigate Cruz after it was reported to them that he left the following comment on a Youtube video: "Im going to be a school shooter."

Florida Governor Calls on FBI Director to Resign
1 days ago

Florida Governor Rick Scott called on FBI Director Christopher Wray to resign following revelations that the FBI had failed to adequately investigate multiple warnings about Parkland High School gunman Nikolas Cruz. “The FBI’s failure to take action against this killer is unacceptable,'" said Scott. '...We constantly promote ‘see something, say something,’ and a courageous person did just that to the FBI. And the FBI failed to act.'" According to an FBI statement, the FBI failed to inform local offices of information regarding "Cruz's desire to kill people, erratic behavior, disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.