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By Kyle Daly
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai’s plan to scrap the agency’s net neutrality rules is not likely to spark any new desire among congressional Democrats to work with Republicans on a legislative solution.
Democrats haven’t been eager to help Republicans move a bill to supplant the current rules put in place by a Democratic-controlled FCC and upheld by a federal appeals court. Despite Pai’s move, Democrats fear the GOP-controlled Congress won’t advance a bill to their liking, policy experts and Democratic congressional aides say.
“I actually think it may drive people further apart,” Gigi Sohn, a former top aide to Pai’s predecessor, Democrat Tom Wheeler, said of Pai’s plan to scrap the current rules. “I’m not opposed to legislation. It’s just that this Congress, the one we have now, is not going to introduce legislation that’s acceptable” to Democrats.
The FCC is slated to vote Dec. 14 on Pai’s plan to roll back Obama-era rules prohibiting broadband providers such as AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp. from blocking or slowing data traffic on their networks. Democrats favor firm utility-style regulation of broadband providers, along with strict net neutrality rules. The GOP prefers a lighter approach that reduces FCC authority and minimizes regulators’ interference in how internet service providers manage their networks.
But Democrats are still leery of working with Republicans on a bill, Democratic aides to the House Energy and Commerce Committee told Bloomberg Law. Any net neutrality bill would originate from that panel or the Senate Commerce, Science, and Technology Committee.
Democrats would rather wait to see if prospects brighten for a deal that would please both sides, one Democratic aide said. The courts could reject Pai’s move, or Democrats may regain control of the House in the 2018 elections, the aide said.
“I’m hopeful that we can get some helpful court action” reversing Pai’s order, said former Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who served as acting commission chairman in the early months of the Obama administration. “But in the final analysis, I think it’ll be the court of public opinion that will have the last word on this, and I think we’ll find a lot of people are upset by this.”
Congressional Republicans have said an FCC move to scale back the net neutrality rules may create a window for bipartisan legislation striking a middle ground between the two parties’ approaches. Republican lawmakers still want to work with Democrats on a net neutrality bill that might prove to be more stringent than Pai’s plan, spokespersons for House Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) told Bloomberg Law.
“While I support Chairman Pai’s efforts as an improvement, I still strongly believe the only way to create long term certainty for the internet ecosystem is for Congress to pass a bipartisan law,” Thune said in an emailed statement.
Pai’s changes would reverse an Obama-era decision to classify broadband as a utility-style telecommunications service under communications law and, instead, treat it as an information service. The FCC has less wide-ranging authority to regulate information services than telecom services. The order scheduled for a December vote would also roll back most of the net neutrality rules that followed the 2015 reclassification decision, including the bans on blocking, slowing or “throttling” traffic, and arrangements known as paid prioritization, whereby internet companies pay broadband providers to speed their content to consumers.
Instead, broadband companies would simply have to disclose any instance of blocking, throttling, or paid prioritization under Pai’s proposal.
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