Republicans are one step closer to repealing net neutrality in the new Congress now that Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn is set to take over a key House telecom subcommittee, where she previously introduced legislation to roll back the rules.
Blackburn was tapped Friday to chair the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. She and other Republicans in the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee spent the last two years grilling Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler over net neutrality rules the agency passed in February 2015.
“We all know that what they’d like to do is regulate the internet so they can tax the internet, so they could then come in and set all the rates,” Blackburn said of the rules in April 2015.
The Tennessee Republican has opposed rules against blocking, throttling and prioritizing internet traffic by internet service providers (ISPs) since the FCC’s first attempt to pass the rules in 2010 under former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. She’s introduced legislation to block agency efforts since the 112th Congress.
Her most recent attempt, the Internet Freedom Act, came a week after FCC Democrats passed the rules by reclassifying ISPs as common carrier public utilities, subjecting them to the same strict regulatory oversight as telephone providers.
The legislation “would block the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules by stating that they shall have no force or effect and prohibits the FCC from reissuing new Net Neutrality rules,” according to a statement from Blackburn’s office.
“There is nothing ‘free and open’ about this heavy-handed approach,” Blackburn said at the time. “Once the federal government establishes a foothold into managing how Internet service providers run their networks they will essentially be deciding which content goes first, second, third, or not at all. My legislation will put the brakes on this FCC overreach and protect our innovators from these job-killing regulations.”
Blackburn was a vocal critic of Wheeler’s agenda during the chairman’s numerous oversight hearing visits to Capitol Hill, where the congresswoman questioned commissioners on a range of issues under FCC jurisdiction including privacy and cable set-top boxes.
The Republican introduced an appropriations amendment last July to block stiff new privacy rules for internet providers the FCC passed last October.
“The fact that we have an agency that is not studying and working on the economic impact and reviewing what this is going to do to the economy is absolutely unbelievable, especially when you look at the fact that the FCC does not have the authority and expertise to move into privacy,” she said at the time.
Blackburn further opposed a measure passed alongside net neutrality to let two municipalities preempt state laws and expand their broadband networks to compete with incumbent providers. The order was later struck down in federal court.
“I found it deeply troubling that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has repeatedly stated that he intends to preempt states’ rights when it comes to the role of state policy over municipal broadband,” she said in 2014 before the order was passed. The congresswoman tried to block the order with another appropriations rider.
Republicans commissioners set to take over the FCC later this month vowed in December to revisit net neutrality “as soon as possible,” but a permanent fix will likely come from Congress, according to a speech Blackburn gave the same month.
“I think you will see us address a net neutrality fix early in the next Congress,” Blackburn told a conservative policy conference in December. “I also believe you are going to see a legislative solution as opposed to a regulatory solution for this issue.”
Blackburn is also a member of President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team. Her new subcommittee chairmanship puts her in a prime position to lead broad process reform at the FCC and a rewrite of the Telecommunications Act, last updated in 1996.
Blackburn said a rewrite of the act would better address issues facing the telecommunications industry in the internet age. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune and former House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton agree. The two introduced a bicameral bill in 2015 to update the act and apply net neutrality rules against content blocking, traffic throttling and paid prioritization, but stepped back from reclassifying ISPs as common carriers.
Blackburn said the bill would be a good place for Congress to start in 2017.
“A legislative fix is going to give you in the industry the certainty that you need so that you know what the rules of the road are for standards for internet conduct,” she said.
Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said he’s “optimistic that the FCC will once again respect the limits that Congress has placed on our authority” while speaking at the same event. Pai is expected to take over as acting FCC chairman until Trump appoints a new agency head.