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Forty-seven Democratic members of Congress are calling for a net neutrality compromise with Republicans, who have refused to support a full restoration of the net neutrality rules repealed by the Ajit Pai-led Federal Communications Commission.
The Democratic-majority US House of Representatives voted in April to pass the Save the Internet Act, which would restore the Obama-era FCC's net neutrality rules. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared the bill “dead on arrival” in the Republican-majority Senate.
Republican lawmakers say they'll only accept a net neutrality law that isn't as strict—even though large majorities of both Democratic and Republican voters support the FCC's old net neutrality rules. On Wednesday, dozens of Democrats asked their party leadership to compromise with the GOP leadership.
“We, the undersigned, voted for [the Save the Internet Act] because it represented an opportunity to resolve questions that courts have struggled with for decades,” the Democrats wrote in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “At the same time, we recognize that this legislation is unlikely to become law, or pass through the Senate, in its current form. If that proves true, consumers will be left without enforceable net neutrality protections while partisan conflict continues. We believe this result is unacceptable and unnecessary.”
The letter to Pelosi was led by Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Scott Peters (D-Calif.) and signed by another 45 Democratic members of the House. It goes on to suggest that the House create “a bipartisan working group” that would write a net neutrality law that's acceptable to Republican lawmakers.
GOP seeks limits on net neutrality
In an unusual move, the Democrats' letter wasn't actually released publicly by Democrats—it was released instead by Republicans from the House Commerce Committee.
“As the Senate begins its bipartisan negotiations on net neutrality legislation, the House must also begin a process of forging bipartisan consensus,” the Democrats wrote. “Various models for legislation could achieve our goals of providing strong, enforceable net neutrality protections for consumers.”
The Democrats' letter to Pelosi said the proposed bipartisan working group should be modeled on “the Wicker-Sinema effort in the Senate,” which is led by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the only Senate Democrat who didn't co-sponsor the Save the Internet Act.
During House negotiations on the Save the Internet Act, Republicans proposed numerous amendments to weaken the net neutrality rules. Among other things, these amendments would have exempted all 5G wireless services and all multi-gigabit broadband services from net neutrality rules, prevented the FCC from limiting the types of zero-rating (i.e., data cap exemptions) that ISPs can deploy, and classified broadband as an information service. The information-service classification would essentially lock in the Pai FCC's deregulation of broadband, preventing the FCC from imposing any other type of common-carrier regulations on ISPs.
While Republican lawmakers often support bans on blocking and throttling, they've also proposed laws that would allow paid prioritization, letting Internet service providers charge online services for faster access to Internet users. GOP-proposed laws would also prevent states from issuing net neutrality rules stricter than those enforced by the federal government.
Net neutrality advocates protest
Consumer advocacy groups protested the Democrats' call for compromise with Republicans.
“Poll after poll has shown that Republican and Democratic voters alike favor the [FCC's] Title II [common-carrier] protections that the Save the Internet Act would reinstate, and yet for some elected officials the demands of the people they represent don't matter as much as bowing to the cable-industry lobbyists that write big campaign checks,” Free Press CEO Craig Aaron said. “The House leadership and all members of Congress must see this awful charade for what it really is: not a bid for bipartisanship but a cowardly and corrupt capitulation to AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon from lawmakers who should know better.”
Separately, Demand Progress and 31 other advocacy groups sent a letter to Pelosi urging her to reject the compromise effort.
“Broad FCC authority under Title II of the Communications Act is critical to ensure net neutrality and to protect all Internet users from unjust, unreasonable, discriminatory, and monopoly behavior by broadband providers,” the letter said. “Critically, the Save the Internet Act also empowers the FCC to advance policy priorities with near-universal support, including promoting broadband deployment and universal service; affordable and equitable access to broadband for all; privacy protections for consumers; and resilient broadband networks that withstand natural disasters and are restored quickly after outages.”
The Wicker-Sinema group in the Senate shouldn't be a model for developing consensus as it “is led by two Senators who have declined to support the common-sense protections contained in the Save the Internet Act,” the advocacy groups' letter said.
We contacted Pelosi's office about the Democrats' letter, and we contacted the Save the Internet Act's lead sponsors in both the House and Senate, namely Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Penn.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). We'll update this story if we get any responses.
Lawsuit could restore full FCC rules
The Save the Internet Act isn't the only option for fully restoring net neutrality rules. Federal appeals court judges are considering whether to reverse the FCC repeal, having recently heard oral arguments in a lawsuit filed against Pai's FCC by more than three dozen entities, including state attorneys general, consumer advocacy groups, and tech companies such as Mozilla and Vimeo.
Democrats could also make net neutrality a campaign issue in 2020 and try to restore the rules in full if they win back the Senate and White House.
“With litigation to overturn the FCC's net neutrality repeal currently pending, and with immense public support behind the Save the Internet Act, now is the exact wrong time to push for alternatives to the bill passed just last month,” the Demand Progress letter to Pelosi said.
Republicans are hoping that the current lack of net neutrality rules will convince Democrats to accept a set of rules that's weaker than those formerly enforced by the FCC.
“We have long said that a permanent, bipartisan legislative solution produced in good faith with our Democratic colleagues is the only way to protect consumers, innovation, and an open Internet,” Reps. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), Bob Latta (R-Ohio), and Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-Wash.) said in a statement yesterday. “We welcome our colleagues' engagement, and hope that a bipartisan working group can be a successful incubator for true bipartisan net neutrality legislation.”