Three Republicans introduced their own net neutrality bills, and they sent a letter to House Democrats asking them to collaborate on a bipartisan bill that would finally end the net neutrality debate.
“We write to urge you to work with us on a bipartisan legislation to ensure that Americans’ access to an open internet will be permanently protected,” the Republicans wrote.
The letter writers, which include representatives Robert Latta (R-Ohio), Cathy Morris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.), introduced their own net neutrality bills at the beginning of February.
The three bills address three of the most important aspects of net neutrality by banning internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking, paid prioritization (or “fast lanes”) and throttling.
While the text of Rodgers’ and Walden’s bills are not available yet, Latta’s specifically prohibits the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from “impos[ing] regulations on broadband internet access service or any component thereof under Title II.”
This is significant because the Obama administration’s FCC used Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 as the basis for its 2015 net neutrality rules, which encompassed much more than just banning blocking, paid prioritization and throttling. While those are often the three most discussed aspects of net neutrality, the 2015 rules were far more comprehensive, covering things like privacy and “zero rating.”
As a result, many net neutrality advocates think the Republicans’ bills are far too weak. Public Knowledge issued a statement saying the bills “fall short of ensuring the FCC has the necessary oversight authority over broadband providers to protect consumers, promote competition, and close the digital divide.”
According to Public Knowledge’s Vice President Chris Lewis, “We cannot accept trading one essential protection for another. Congress must act to fully protect net neutrality while preserving the power of the FCC as an expert agency to protect consumers, and the simplest way to do that is to reaffirm the classification of broadband as a ‘Title II’ telecommunications service.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) also slammed the Republican net neutrality bills in a Feb. 20 blog post, fearing they are too incomplete to adequately protect consumers and encourage competition.
For example, the 2015 rules included a ban on “zero rating” and also prompted a set of privacy rules for ISPs to protect consumers’ data (which were subsequently repealed by Congress).
“[Zero-rating] can be used to drive Internet users to the ISP’s own content or favored partners, squelching competition,” EFF Legislative Counsel Ernesto Falcon wrote. “A recent Epicenter.works multi-year study on zero-rating practices in the EU has found that countries that allow zero-rating plans have more expensive wireless services than countries that do not. It also found that when ISPs engage in zero-rating practices, only large companies are able to maintain the market relationships needed to be zero-rated.”
Then there are the privacy concerns. The 2015 net neutrality rules classified the internet as a telecommunications service subject to Title II regulation, and thus “imposed a duty on your ISP to protect your personal information.”
Since the the Trump administration’s FCC reclassified the internet as an information service and reversed the net neutrality rules, the FCC can’t force ISPs to respect your privacy and protect your data. (Currently only California has privacy rules for ISPs, under its recently passed California Consumer Privacy Act.)
At the time, net neutrality advocates feared the net neutrality repeal would embolden ISPs to share or sell user data, and as the EFF and Public Knowledge pointed out, it’s still a concern. Some ISPs, including Comcast, insist they do not sell user data, browser history, or any similar data.
But tech experts disagree over whether the U.S. should have net neutrality rules based on a decades-old law — and whether all the provisions included in the 2015 net neutrality rules are really necessary in a bipartisan law.
For example, some argue the 2015 rules only benefit edge providers like Facebook and Google by transferring market power from the ISPs to edge providers, which doesn’t help consumers at all. (Ironically, the edge providers are the ones sharing and selling user data.)
Republicans fear Trump won’t sign a net neutrality bill based on Title II, which is why, as they state in the letter, they hope they can reach a compromise with Democrats.
“[We can] protect consumers without the heavy hand of Title II, which would give the government unbridled power to tax the internet, institute costly fees, set prices and terms of plans and even take control of assets,” they wrote in the Feb. 21 letter. “These powers will not provide more protections for consumers, but would punish consumers through higher costs, fewer choices and less innovation.”