Skepticism greets GOP plan to restore open-internet rules

U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn has proposed legislation that would take net neutrality out of the hands of the FCC.

A key Republican lawmaker has offered legislation to restore net neutrality protections that the Federal Communications Commission yanked last week.

“Our goal is to preserve access to a free and open internet and to make certain that we’re continuing to see innovation in this space,” Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican who is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

But while Democrats have objected to the FCC’s action, they have been skeptical of open-internet proposals from Republicans that would crimp the agency’s future ability to oversee broadband providers such as AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp.

“We are at the point of litigation, not legislation” as groups look to federal courts to overturn the FCC’s decision, said Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat.

Broadband providers have long called for the issue to be settled in Congress and removed from the FCC, where policies can change as presidential administrations change. But the apparent impasse in Congress shows how web-traffic rules have become a divisive partisan issue likely to elude compromise anytime soon. Democrats could gain congressional seats in next year’s elections and be in a stronger position.

“Why in God’s name would anyone agree to something now?” said Gigi Sohn, a Democratic FCC aide who helped craft the agency’s 2015 rules that were overturned Dec. 14.

Blackburn’s legislation, offered Tuesday, would ban broadband providers from blocking or slowing web traffic. It doesn’t address so-called “fast lanes” that the earlier FCC rules had prohibited. The bill would prohibit states and the FCC from carving out any further authority over net neutrality in the future. In a phone interview, Blackburn said her legislation didn’t tackle fast lanes because “that is an issue where there is not agreement.” She said “innovators” in autonomous vehicles, health care, and other sectors might want to be able to pay for their data to get priority, which the FCC has also argued.

She also warned against the Democrats making net neutrality a campaign issue. Americans “don’t want something to be held over as a campaign issue when there is a solution,” she said.

Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who joined his agency’s 3-2 vote to kill Obama-era rules, said in an emailed statement that the bill “offers a realistic opportunity for compromise and finality on this much-debated issue.”

Internet companies objected.

“The proposal circulated today does not meet the criteria for basic net neutrality protections,” Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association, a trade group with members including Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook, Netflix, and Amazon.com. The group wants a ban on so-called fast lanes that offer quicker passage over broadband networks in return for payment, Beckerman said.

The FCC rules barred broadband providers from blocking or slowing web traffic, or offering quicker passage in return for payment. Under the FCC measure passed last week, which has yet to take effect, the Federal Trade Commission would assume enforcement responsibilities that the FCC is abandoning.

“I hope our Democratic colleagues will rethink their public strategy to ‘litigate not legislate’ as we begin this serious legislative effort,” Greg Walden, the Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement.

Republicans have generally taken the side of broadband providers, and Democrats have adopted positions alongside Silicon Valley, which wants rules to ensure data flows smoothly to consumers. Although in the minority in both houses of Congress, Democrats have enough votes to stop a bill in the Senate.

Republican proposals have amounted to a “legislative wolf in sheep’s clothing, offering select few safeguards while taking away the FCC’s future authority over broadband,” Markey said in an email.