In-Depth: Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, introduced this bill to restore net neutrality. Referring to polling data indicating that over 80 percent of respondents supported net neutrality, Rep. Doyle said in a press release:
“Americans overwhelmingly support the restoration of net neutrality protections that would ensure the Internet remains an open platform for innovation and competition. The Save the Internet Act would ‘repeal the repeal’ and codify the FCC’s Open Internet Order as a new free-standing section of law. By enacting this legislation restoring the 2015 Net Neutrality rules, the Save the Internet Act would once again prohibit the abusive practices Internet Service Providers engaged in time and time again before the 2015 Open Internet Order was issued.”
Introducing this bill alongside his Democratic House and Senate colleagues, Rep. Doyle added, “Net neutrality is one of the most important digital-rights issues we face today, and the internet is among the most influential important inventions ever created.” He added that customers understand ISPs have too much control over their internet access, and that ISPs have committed bad acts in the past:
“People understand that their ISPs have far too much control over their connection to the internet and the services that they care about. So whether it’s slowing down Netflix, [or] blocking access to innovative mobile services ... the track record for ISPs on this issue is clear.”
In an interview with NEXTpittsburgh about this bill, Rep. Doyle expounded on his position in regards to net neutrality, saying, “I believe [internet] access is a right. We shouldn’t be able to block any group of people from access to the internet.” He added that the repeal of net neutrality protections means the FCC isn’t regulating ISPs right now:
“Today, nobody is enforcing any rules. There’s no cop on the beat. [FCC] Chairman Ajit Pai, when he repealed the open internet order, basically just abdicated the FCC’s authority to regulate the ISPs. You need a cop on the beat. [Net neutrality] rules wouldn’t have been put into place if there was never [bad] behavior on the part of ISPs. We didn’t just dream all this up.”
Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA), who is the sponsor of this bill’s Senate companion, adds:
“When we talk about a free and open internet, we mean an internet that is free from corporate control and open to anyone to communicate, innovate and connect. Net neutrality ensures that when you pay your monthly bill to your internet service provider, you are able to access all content on the web at the same speed as your neighbor, or big corporations. The Save the Internet Act is clear and simple: overturn the Trump FCC’s wrongheaded decision and restore strong net neutrality protections. Whether in the halls of Congress or the halls of the courts, we will not stop fighting until net neutrality is fully restored.”
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who is a vocal advocate for strong net neutrality rules, praised this bill in a statement. She added, “I'll keep raising a ruckus to support net neutrality, and I'm glad so many others are too.” Democratic FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks agreed with Rosenworcel, saying in a statement after this bill’s introduction:
“The American people have demanded a free and open internet and I am pleased that Congress has responded with today’s legislation. I continue to believe that the FCC’s 2015 Net Neutrality rules were the right approach and the bill introduced today takes us back in that direction—a direction that will empower the FCC to keep the internet open as a gateway to opportunity for students, job seekers, consumers, creators, and businesses. They and everyone need, deserve, and expect unfettered access to the internet. Last year, the Senate passed a similar measure, to restore the FCC’s 2015 Net Neutrality rules, on a bipartisan basis. I am hopeful that the bill introduced today will energize folks across the country that care about Net Neutrality and lead to restoration of the common-sense protections needed to keep the internet open.”
Many large internet content companies, such as Netflix, have taken strong public stances supporting net neutrality. Meanwhile, large media and telecommunications companies, such as Comcast and AT&T, have opposed net neutrality.
Tina Pelkey, a spokeswoman for FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, says overregulation, not lack of net neutrality, is the biggest risk to a vibrant internet. In a statement after this bill’s introduction, Pelkey argued that this bill would reverse the FCC’s successful policy of encouraging internet growth and freedom:
“The FCC’s return in 2017 to the bipartisan, light-touch approach to Internet regulation has been a success. This time-tested framework has preserved the free and open Internet. It has promoted transparency in order to better inform consumer choice. It has unleashed private investment, resulting in more fiber being deployed in 2018 than any year before and download speeds increasing by an astounding 36%. And it has proven wrong the many hysterical predictions of doom from 2017, most notably the fantasy that market-based regulation would bring about ‘the end of the Internet as we know it.’ The Internet in America today is free and vibrant, and the main thing it needs to be saved from is heavy-handed regulation from the 1930s.”
In testimony to the House Energy and Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Communications and Technology in March 2019, former FCC commissioner Robert McDowell, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and a co-leader of Cooley LLP’s global communications practice, argued that new net neutrality rules are unnecessary, and would be harmful if they’re anything but “light-touch regulation”:
“There is a good case to be made that there should be no new rules. The Internet has thrived since the 2018 decision, and some of the concerns that drove the 2015 rules either never materialized or are being addressed in the marketplace. For instance, while there were concerns about ISPs using personal data sent via the Internet, nearly 75% of all Internet traffic was being encrypted at the end of the third quarter of 2018, and 91% of all U.S. ISP traffic to Google is encrypted, which largely eliminates that hypothetical risk. More prudent public policy would be produced if America had simple, understandable, permanent rules. Such a construct makes better sense than for consumers, ISPs, and edge providers to have to toggle back and forth between new rules and old rules again and again over time. In addition, there are remedies for anticompetitive behavior under existing federal law. The Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission have at their disposal the full panoply of U.S. antitrust and consumer protection laws to address market failures in the broadband industry should they arise… But if there are to be specific rules for broadband service providers, the 2005 principles – and specifically the first four principles – with their view toward a freedom-enhancing, open Internet, provide an appropriate blueprint for any legislation. They created a framework that ISPs and consumers alike could understand and that would not deter innovation or investment, either in the core Internet or by application and content providers at the edge.”
The Internet Innovation Alliance opposes this legislation, saying:
“For over 20 years, including in the past year, the broadband internet has been regulated in a bipartisan consensus according to the light-touch rules first adopted during the Clinton Administration. Those rules helped the internet grow exponentially.”
Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), who chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the 115th Congress, argues that paid prioritization is part of American life. Comparing paid prioritization of internet speeds to seating on planes and trains, he asked rhetorically, “Where do you want to sit on the airplane? Where do you want to sit on Amtrak?”
This bill passed the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology by an 18-11 vote with the support of 175 Democratic House cosponsors. A Senate companion bill, sponsored by Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) with the support of 45 cosponsors, including 43 Democrats and two Independents, has yet to receive a committee vote.
This bill has the support of New America’s Open Technology Institute, Demand Progress, Free Press Action, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Public Knowledge, Color of Change, the Center for Media Justice, Consumer Reports, Fight for the Future, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and INCOMPAS.
Of Note: “Net neutrality” is the idea that all internet traffic should be free to run at equal speeds. From 2015 to 2017, net neutrality laws under Title II of the Communications Act prohibited ISPs from:
- Dictating which websites their clients may access;
- Throttling the speed of sites;
- Charging additional fees to visit other sites; and
- Charging customers extra fees for high-quality streaming.
Rep. Doyle’s office notes that net neutrality protections are needed because “ISPs have a long history of using their control over the link between internet users and the Internet Backbone to block – or extract money from – consumers and ‘edge providers.’” This history of anti-competitive, anti-consumer behavior by ISPs led to the FCC establishing rules to protect net neutrality, and to ratchet up its rules in response to ISP violations of, and legal challenges to, net neutrality through 2015, when the FCC adopted the Open Internet Order.
Under the Open Internet Order, consumers had the right to access the content of their choice on the Internet, and content providers had the right to access consumers without having to pay tolls or have their service blocked or degraded by an ISP. The Open Internet Order prohibited ISPs from using their position between consumers and the Internet to advantage themselves, their own products and services, or third parties that want preferential treatment.
In 2017, the Trump FCC under Chairman Ajit Pai — a former Verizon lobbyist — voted 3-2 along party lines to kill the Open Internet Order via the Restoring Internet Freedom order. After the Restoring Internet Freedom order’s passage, net neutrality became officially defunct six months later, in June 2018. At the time, Pai argued that net neutrality rules unfairly burden ISPs, especially smaller ones servicing low-income or rural areas:
“My concern is that, by imposing those heavy-handed economic regulations on [ISPs] big and small, we could end up disincentivizing companies from wanting to build out Internet access to a lot of parts of the country, in low-income, urban and rural areas.”
Last Congress, Rep. Doyle and Sen. Markey led an effort to enact legislation under the Congressional Review Act to overturn the Trump FCC’s decision. Their bill passed the Senate, but House Republican leadership refused to bring it to the House floor for a vote. With the House in Democratic hands, Rep. Doyle and Sen. Markey feel the odds of legislation restoring net neutrality have improved in the 116th Congress.
Public Knowledge reports that there have been several potential net neutrality violations since the ban on net neutrality went into effect in 2018:
- AT&T and Verizon both pair their more expensive unlimited plans with their own streaming services, potentially giving these carriers’ content an advantage in the marketplace over smaller, independent video producers.
- Sprint has been throttling internet traffic to Microsoft’s Skype service, causing the video quality to be poorer than it should be, which is cause for concern because Skype competes with Sprint’s calling service.
- Comcast has instituted new speed limits, throttling videos to 480p on all mobile plans unless customers pay extra.
- One recent study showed that the largest U.S. telecommunications companies — Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile — are slowing down internet traffic from video-streaming apps such as YouTube and Netflix.
According to Ars Technica, Verizon’s throttling of services even affected the Santa Clara County Fire Department’s ability to provide emergency services during the California wildfires in 2018. The department’s firefighters experienced slowed-down speeds on their phones, affecting their ability to provide emergency services, and had to sign up for a new, more expensive plan before speeds were restored. According to Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden, Verizon imposed data speed limitations “despite being informed that throttling was actively impeding County Fire’s ability to provide crisis-response and essential emergency services.”
Summarizing these events, Public Knowledge argues:
“If companies continue to act without a net neutrality framework, there is a danger that we’ll see an internet structured like cable networks. But this is not how the internet started. Rather, the internet is a place where everyone can have a voice, unlike cable where you either need a hard-to-get carriage agreement or to be wealthy enough to own a channel to deliver your own content. The internet is also where small businesses can freely compete without worrying about getting pushed out by bigger businesses. But providers now have the authority to normalize selling broadband like they sell cable television by deciding which sites individuals can go to and setting price tiers to access more of the internet. This could become a reality -- and it could happen so gradually that consumers might not even notice the full loss of protections and choices (and rise in costs) until it’s too late.”
In the absence of a federal law on this issue, several states have sought to pass their own net neutrality laws, with 34 states and the District of Columbia considering resolutions regarding net neutrality in the 2018 legislative session and five states (California, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington) enacting legislation or adopting resolutions. Additionally, 21 U.S. state attorneys general sued the FCC to restore net neutrality in January 2018.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / gorodenkoff)