Brushing aside a veto threat from President Obama, Republicans in Congress passed a controversial bill on Friday that public interest groups say would kneecap federal net neutrality internet protections.
Open internet advocates call the "No Rate Regulation of Broadband Internet Access Act," which was approved in a 241-173 vote largely along party lines, just the latest GOP attempt to undermine federal rules protecting net neutrality, the principle that all content on the internet should be equally accessible.
Republican backers of the bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican who has received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign funds from the broadband industry, say it's necessary to prevent the Federal Communications Commission from overstepping its bounds and regulating internet prices.
"This is an essential step in having a vibrant internet ecosystem that prompts and promotes new jobs and investment," said Rep. Greg Walden, the Oregon Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. "The last thing we want to throw on there is the cold water of Washington bureaucracy that will stifle competition and innovation."
Open internet advocates call GOP concerns about rate regulation a canard—the FCC has already pledged not to regulate broadband rates—and argue that the bill would actually undermine the agency's authority because cable and phone companies could claim that any FCC action against data caps, zero-rating, and price-gouging, not to mention blocking and throttling, amounts to rate regulation.
"Don't believe a word the House Majority leadership says about this bill," Matt Wood, policy director at Free Press Action Fund, said in a statement. "It's really about giving massive broadband providers the ability to gouge internet users with impunity. And it comes at a time when American internet users are paying far too much in markets where there are few if any choices for high-speed access, and when the digital divide is only getting wider."
In its landmark 2015 open internet order, the FCC said it would refrain from, or forebear, using its authority to regulate broadband rates. But House Republicans say the bill is nevertheless necessary. Why? Because they don't trust President Obama.
"After seven years of broken promises, I have a hard time trusting this administration will follow through," said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican. "So today we're voting to hold the administration to its word. They promise not to regulate the rates. This legislation bars the FCC from regulating rates. It's as simple as that, and I can't imagine why anyone would object."
Rep. Anna Eshoo, the California Democrat, pointed out that she tried to amend the bill to codify the FCC's forbearance pledge, and also make clear that the legislation does not prevent the agency from using its authority over data caps, zero-rating, and other consumer-unfriendly industry practices that undermine net neutrality. Republicans torpedoed her amendment.
"In reality this bill is about undermining the FCC's authority to protect consumers and ensure a free and open internet for all," said Eshoo, adding that she's not surprised that her GOP colleagues would try to undercut the FCC's net neutrality policy, because they have "never supported it."
Not surprisingly, the nation's largest cable and telecom trade groups, including the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the American Cable Association, and CTIA - The Wireless Association, strongly support the bill, which they say will alleviate "the threat that the Federal Communications Commission will limit provider pricing flexibility or otherwise dictate the terms and conditions of our members' service offerings."
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican who has received mountains of campaign cash from the nation's largest telecom and cable companies, imputed sinister motives to the FCC and its open internet policy. "We all know that what they would like to do is regulate the internet so they can tax the internet," said Blackburn. "So they can then come in and set all the rates. So they can then come in and assign priority and value to content."
Friday's vote was a largely symbolic act of Republican opposition to the FCC's open internet policy, because President Obama, a vocal net neutrality supporter, has indicated that he plans to veto the bill. But before the legislation can reach Obama's desk, the Senate would have to take up and pass its own version of the bill, and they haven't even started to consider the matter.
"Sen. Ted Cruz has mischaracterized net neutrality rules as 'Obamacare for the internet,'" Chris Lewis, vice president of government affairs at DC-based consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, said in a statement. "Now GOP members seem set on giving net neutrality the Obamacare treatment with repeated votes to undermine it, with no chance of agreement from the President."
A FCC spokesperson declined to comment on Friday's vote.