Republicans Plan Net Neutrality Bill to Counter FCC Action

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Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) plan to introduce legislation that they say will offer net neutrality protections such as prohibiting broadband providers from blocking and throttling content or charging for premium delivery to consumers.

“We need unambiguous rules of the road that protect Internet users and can help spur job creation and economic growth,” wrote Thune and Upton in a Reuters op-ed. “The rules we propose would prohibit blocking and throttling (the selective slowing of data), and also ensure that Internet service providers could not charge a premium to prioritize content delivery.”

The legislation would be a counter to FCC action on net neutrality. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has hinted that the commission is moving toward rules that would reclassify the Internet as a Title II telecommunications service, a regulatory maneuver that is opposed by major Internet service providers and many congressional Republicans. But the rationale behind it is that it would give the FCC a firmer legal footing through which to impose robust rules.

The FCC is scheduled to vote on Feb. 26, with proposed new rules circulated earlier in the month.

“Using Title II could result in billions of dollars in higher government fees and taxes on consumers’ monthly broadband bills, according to a Progressive Policy Institute report,” Thune and Upton wrote. “It also could extend new regulations to areas like mobile broadband without recognizing the unique challenges that mobile carriers face.

“One near-certainty is that this approach will perpetuate years of litigation and even more uncertainty for consumers and job creators.”

The Republican legislation would prohibit the FCC from reclassifying, but Thune and Upton’s embrace of some of the main net neutrality principals represents a shift in tone, as some GOP leaders have previously questioned the need for rules at all. Polls have shown large majorities of support for net neutrality.

Advocates of robust rules of the road for the Internet also favor a ban on paid prioritization, blocking and throttling, but they will be looking at the details of any legislation to see if there are any loopholes and whether it covers both wired and wireless Internet service.

Thune, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and Upton, chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, said that they plan in the coming days “to pursue a public process to draft and enact bipartisan legislation that would protect the open Internet.”

The House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology has scheduled a Jan. 21 hearing on net neutrality.

Update: Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, which has been organizing the campaign for net neutrality, wrote in the Huffington Post, “Don’t be fooled. What matters is what’s missing from Thune and Upton’s list of priorities — and those omissions have Comcast’s fingerprints all over them.

“Most notably, there’s no discussion of ‘nondiscrimination,’ which is the essence of Net Neutrality and the most important part of the Title II approach endorsed by President Obama and millions of Americans. Furthermore, the bill seems designed to strip the FCC of any meaningful authority or enforcement mechanisms.”