House Democrats get down to business on tech issues

Net neutrality, FCC oversight, T-Mobile-Sprint merger and Apple's FaceTime debacle are all getting attention from Democratic leaders on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
5 min read

A new Congress is in session and Democrats are hitting the ground running on tech issues.

CNET/Marguerite Reardon

Democrats on Capitol are wasting no time digging into big and controversial tech issues now that they control the House of Representatives.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by Frank Pallone of New Jersey, has been busy this past week, scheduling hearings and sending letters to company executives and regulatory agencies it oversees.

On Thursday, the committee will hold a hearing on net neutrality with former FCC chairmen Tom Wheeler, a Democrat who served under President Obama, and Michael Powell, a Republican who served under President George W. Bush, among those testifying. The committee has also scheduled a hearing for Feb. 13 with the heads of T-Mobile and Sprint to question the effects the $26 billion merger will have on consumers.

Then there are the letters. On Monday, the committee sent a letter to the current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, putting him on alert that his agency will be under more scrutiny under Democratic leadership. And on Tuesday, the committee sent a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook asking for more information on the flaw in its Group FaceTime video feature, which allows people to eavesdrop on someone else's conversations.

All this activity comes as Democrats settle into their new role controlling the House of Representatives, following the midterm elections. The party has vowed to put technology issues front and center of its agenda. Prior to the election, Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat who represents Silicon Valley, outlined the loose agenda in a so-called Internet Bill of Rights. The list of items to be addressed include protecting net neutrality, ensuring consumer choice for internet service providers, offering greater transparency on how data is collected online and notifying consumers in a timely manner when personal data has been accessed via hacks.

Net neutrality hearing this week

Democrats in Congress have been trying to save the Obama-era net neutrality regulations since they were overturned by the Republican-led FCC in late 2017. The Senate managed to pass a Congressional Review Act resolution to rollback the repeal. But the effort came up short in the House, where Democrats were outnumbered.

Now the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on net neutrality, where it's likely to ask former FCC chairman Wheeler, whose FCC wrote the controversial 2015 rules, for his take on protecting internet openness. Former FCC chairman Powell, who now heads up the cable industry's main lobbying group, will also be testifying as will a representative from Mozilla, which is the lead petitioner in the federal appeals court challenging the net neutrality repeal. Oral arguments in the case were held last week.

Watch this: Net neutrality could be saved by a technicality

FCC oversight

On Monday, Pallone and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania sent a letter to FCC Chairman Pai  warning him the committee will be taking a closer look at the agency and "reassuming its traditional role of oversight to ensure the agency is acting in the best interest of the public and consistent with its legislative authority."

Pallone and Doyle accused Pai of making the FCC too secretive and repeatedly looking out for the interests of corporations over consumers.

"Under your leadership, the FCC has failed repeatedly to act in the public interest and placed the interest of corporations over consumers," they wrote. "The FCC should be working to advance the goals of public safety, consumer protection, affordable access and connectivity across the United States."

A spokesperson for the FCC denied these accusations.

"This has been the most transparent FCC in history with the commission for the first time publicly releasing the drafts of meeting items three weeks before the commission vote," the spokesperson said in an email. "Under the prior administration, by contrast, the commission had to pass an Order before the public was allowed to see what was in it."

An oversight committee hearing has yet to be scheduled.

Answers from Apple

Democrats on the committee are also demanding answers from Cook after a bug in Apple's FaceTime app allowed users to listen in on other devices even their call hadn't been accepted.  

On Tuesday, Pallone and Jan Schakowski, who heads the subcommittee on consumer protection, sent a letter to Cook asking to what extent the vulnerability, which Apple said it had fixed last week, compromised consumers' privacy. They also wanted to know if there were other undisclosed bugs that still need addressing.

"As a first step, we believe it is important for Apple to be transparent about its investigation into the Group FaceTime feature's vulnerability and the steps it is taking to protect consumers' privacy," they wrote. "To date, we do not believe Apple has been as transparent as this serious issue requires."

Questions for T-Mobile and Sprint on $26 billion merger

T-Mobile and Sprint executives are headed back to Washington, DC, next week to face a joint hearing of the House Commerce and Judiciary Committees.

The execs will likely be asked questions about how the merger will affect consumer pricing and competition in the wireless market, as well as about the companies' involvement with Huawei.

"A merger between T-Mobile and Sprint would combine two of the four largest wireless carriers and the carriers with the largest numbers of low-income customers," the committee heads said in a press release. The committees have oversight over the FCC and the Department of Justice, which must both sign off on the merger.

In a letter to the FCC on Monday, T-Mobile CEO John Legere made a personal pledge to regulators that the "New T-Mobile" wouldn't raise prices on its service following the merger. Doing so, he said, would erode the relationship with T-Mobile customers.

"I want to reiterate, unequivocally, that New T-Mobile rates are NOT going to go up," he said. "Rather, our merger will ensure that American consumers will pay less and get more ... My management team and I can make this personal commitment because we believe in delivering on our promises, and we know if we do not, we will lose credibility and the trust of our customers."

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