The House effort to roll back the FCC’s Net neutrality rules stands little chance of getting very far, but it does amplify a familiar theme of Republicans as they look to the 2012 presidential race: that regulation is stifling growth.
In fact, the FCC’s rules, approved in December, were an effort to find consensus between the many interested parties, including consumer groups and Internet service providers. If anything, digital rights groups expressed disappointment that the rules were not robust enough. The provisions restrict ISPs from discriminating against different types of content and require that they treat all traffic equally, but the rules leave flexibility to providers in the growing area of wireless services.
The House’s resolution, repealing the FCC’s rules, passed Friday in a 240-179 vote, largely along party lines. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the vote “gave voice to the American people by voting to ensure that the Internet remains open and free from unwarranted and unwelcome government regulation.” He’s also called the Net neutrality initiative a “power grab” by the FCC, and other lawmakers have characterized it as a government effort to take control of the Internet.
It’s hard to see the House action going very far in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said, “I’m disappointed that House leadership wants to undo the integrity of the FCC’s process and unravel their good work.”
In a blog post, Art Brodsky of the digital rights group Public Knowledge said that some of the rhetoric of the debate has been of “rambling, discredited arguments that have no basis in fact but which seem to take on additional merit when screeched at the top of a legislator’s lungs.”
The GOP effort, however, could prove a counter to President Obama’s focus on jobs and innovation as he looks to 2012, or “winning the future,” as he has called it.
During the 2008 campaign, Obama supported Net neutrality, and it was among the issues that helped galvanize the netroots that proved so potent a force in his presidential run.
Even before the House resolution came to a vote, the White House indicated that Obama would veto it should it ever reach his desk, warning that it would “raise questions as to whether innovation on the Internet will be allowed to flourish, consumers will be protected from abuses and the democratic spirit of the Internet will remain intact.”
Hollywood often has been caught in the middle of the Net neutrality debate. Studios have been concerned about their ability to experiment with different types of specialized streaming services, as well as their efforts to combat piracy, and the FCC makes explicit that its rules provide for lawful content. Meanwhile, content creators, including the Writers Guild of America, worry that the Internet will devolve into something resembling the platforms of cable TV, limiting opportunity for independents.
For now, the greater threat to the FCC rules may be in the courts. Verizon sued the agency in federal court, saying that the FCC overstepped its authority. The Court of Appeals in Washington dismissed the suit last week, but it was because the FCC order has yet to be published in the Federal Register.