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House Republicans Again Target Net Neutrality With Budget Attack

Public internet groups decry the latest GOP tactics to undermine the FCC.
May 27, 2016, 7:39pm
Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) is leading the effort to try to rein in what he calls "over-spending and overreach within federal bureaucracies." Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Many Republican leaders in Congress loathe US rules protecting net neutrality, the principle that all content on the internet should be equally accessible—and they're expressing their feelings by targeting the Federal Communications Commission, the agency charged with upholding those rules.

That much became clear this week when the GOP released its fiscal 2017 financial services appropriations bill, which slashes funding for the FCC by $69 million, and severely hobbles the agency's ability to enforce its net neutrality rules, crack down on abusive "zero-rating" practices, and move ahead with reforms designed to open up the video set-top box market.

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House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, said in a statement that the bill aims to "to tightly hold the reins on the over-spending and overreach within federal bureaucracies."

Public interest groups and open internet advocates call the Republican bill just the latest example of a long-standing GOP campaign to bury anti-consumer measures favored by the broadband industry deep inside must-pass budget legislation. In recent years, Republican lawmakers have repeatedly used this tactic, but thus far have not been successful, thanks to pushback from House Democrats and the White House.

"We are disappointed that the majority has hijacked what should be a straightforward bipartisan appropriations process and used it as yet another vehicle for dictating policies that directly harm consumers and undermine competition," Kate Forscey, associate counsel at DC-based consumer rights group Public Knowledge, said in a statement.

"By significantly reducing funding by $69 million, the bill strips the FCC of critical resources needed to promote the public interest and in particular to prevent internet discrimination and protect consumers from price gouging," Forscey added.

The GOP bill would prevent the FCC from enforcing its landmark 2015 net neutrality order, "until certain court cases are resolved." That refers to major federal litigation filed by the cable and phone industry challenging the FCC's net neutrality rules. Although the DC Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to issue a ruling very soon, that ruling would most likely not "resolve" the case, because most observers expect the case to be appealed to the Supreme Court. In other words, the FCC could be prevented from enforcing net neutrality indefinitely.

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The Republican bill also would severely undermine a FCC proposal designed to increase competition in the video market by allowing third-parties to create set-top boxes, effectively breaking the cable industry's monopoly on those devices—a monopoly that forces consumers to spend an average of $231 per year renting set-top boxes, fattening the industry's bottom line.

The Republican bill would require the FCC to "refrain from further activity of the recently proposed set-top box rule until a study is completed." The bill's text explains that such a study, which would have to be peer-reviewed, would then be followed by a 90-day comment period, followed by a further 180-day period. Only after that time would the FCC be allowed to act on its set-top box proposal.

As a result, the GOP bill would effectively punt any FCC action on set-top boxes well into next year, when there will be a new president and, most likely, a new FCC chairman, appointed by the incoming chief executive. Needless to say, if a Republican wins the White House, it's very likely that the new FCC chairman would scuttle set-top box reform altogether.

In a blog post, Candace Clement, internet campaign director at DC-based public interest group Free Press, lambasted House Republicans for using the appropriations process to advance their anti-consumer agenda.

"Opponents of the open internet are doing everything they can to stop, derail or delay reforms as this election year wears on," Clement wrote. "Members of Congress shouldn't be able to use budget bills to push the agenda of companies like Comcast and AT&T. This isn't how government is supposed to work. Appropriations bills should be used for setting budgets, not for rolling back good policy."

On Wednesday, the House Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee approved the GOP bill. The full House Appropriations Committee must now consider the measure—likely the week of June 6 (the bill has yet to be calendered)—before the legislation reaches the floor for a full House vote.