With efforts to fill the vacant FCC seat and tilt the commission back to a Democratic majority, the Senate is poised to try an alternate path to realizing the party’s longtime goal of restoring net neutrality rules. Championed by Senators Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), the Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act proposes to reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service, which would open up companies including AT&T and Verizon to stricter FCC oversight. Internet service providers would be prevented from blocking or throttling content, while pricing and privacy would also receive scrutiny.
The simple two-page bill is expected to be formally introduced before the August recess, according to The Washington Post, which reports that Representative Doris Matsui (D-California) is set to introduce the bill’s counterpart in the House. The bill is expected to face Republican opposition, making passage a longshot.
Republicans have been blocking FCC appointment of Gigi Sohn, who President Biden nominated in October. Confirmation of Sohn, an outspoken net neutrality advocate, would result in the Democratic majority necessary to revive net neutrality through the agency.
Last month, Axios wrote that if Sohn “doesn’t win a vote before summer recess, Democrats could lose their chance to fill the seat should Republicans take control of Congress in November.”
In 2015, a Democratically controlled FCC “voted to regulate broadband as a telecommunications service under what’s known as Title II of the Communications Act of 1934,” writes WaPo, noting “the move opened telecom companies up to more stringent, utility-style regulation, like what exists for electricity and water, and ushered in the anti-discrimination rules known as net neutrality.”
In 2017, under the leadership of Republican Donald Trump’s designated chairman, Ajit Pai, the FCC repealed those rules.
Net neutrality proponents feel the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the need for Internet connectivity as a utility service, something Republicans resisted, arguing at the time the designation hindered ISP providers from making discretionary, market-driven decisions as to how to run their businesses.
More recently, Republicans have argued that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter should be designated “common carriers” so they could be regulated to reverse what some view as anti-conservative bias. “By treating them as common carriers, Republicans have argued, social networks could theoretically be barred from discriminating against viewpoints,” WaPo writes.
Since both Republicans and Democrats, to varying degrees, have objections related to the law referred to as Section 230 — part of U.S. Code 47, which sets parameters for the FCC — there may be some room for horse trading to get net neutrality legislation passed.