Democrats hit the gas on Net neutrality bill

The Democrats leading the Save the Internet Act are pushing for a vote in April, with or without Republicans.

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
7 min read
House Energy and Commerce Committee

Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania heads the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on communications and technology.  

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Rep. Mike Doyle, who's shepherding the Democrats' bill in the House of Representatives to restore the Obama-era net neutrality protections, says he's not waiting for Republican support before bringing the proposed legislation to a vote.

In an interview with CNET, the Democrat from Pennsylvania, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on communications and technology, criticized his colleagues on the other side of the aisle for not making a good faith effort to work across party lines to put net neutrality protections in place. He said he'd like to get bipartisan support for the Save the Internet Act, but that even without it his bill, supported by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, will get a vote in April.

Last week Doyle's subcommittee held a hearing on the bill, which reinstates Federal Communications Commission rules repealed in December 2017 by the Republican-led FCC. As part of this repeal, the FCC abdicated its authority to protect consumers online to the Federal Trade Commission.

The bill introduced by Democrats is an attempt to end a nearly two decades old fight to codify rules that prevent broadband companies from abusing their power as gatekeepers to the internet. Specifically, it prevents broadband providers from blocking, slowing down or charging for faster access to the internet. But it also restores the FCC's authority as the "cop on the beat" when it comes to policing potential broadband abuses.

Republicans have criticized the legislation, because they say it gives the FCC too much authority to regulate ISPs. Three bills from Republicans were introduced in February that would put the FCC's three so-called bright line rules of no-blocking, no-throttling and no-paid prioritization into law. But the bills would still strip the FCC of oversight.  Doyle says those efforts don't go far enough in protecting consumers.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: Several Republicans at the hearing Tuesday said they were disappointed that you and your fellow Democrats haven't taken a bipartisan approach in crafting this bill. What do you say to that?
Doyle: Republicans made no effort to come to me to say let's sit down and work together on a net neutrality bill. They just introduced three bills on us without ever calling us in advance and without ever saying we want to work with you. What did they think I was going to do? Put them on the schedule and mark them up?

Maybe because they've been in the majority for the last eight years they forgot that they aren't in the majority anymore. But I know when I was in the minority if I wanted to work with the side that could get a bill on the floor, I'd go to the chairman and express my willingness to work with him.

So it kind of rang hollow to me when they said we are the ones not being bipartisan. I don't know what they expected us to do.

You led the effort in the last Congress to pass a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution in the House to roll back the net neutrality repeal. But not every Democrat in the House supported the petition, and it never came to a floor vote. Do you have enough votes now?
Doyle: This is a different Congress, there's a lot more of us here than were there last year. And I feel confident we have the support we need.

We are going to pass this bill in the House. During the last Congress, we had the vast majority of our members -- 180 some members -- on the discharge petition. Now we also have 61 new members. So I'd say that the vast majority, if not all of those 61 members, are going to vote for this bill.

What about on the Senate side? Many of your colleagues say it's dead in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Doyle: I look at it this way: There were 52 votes for this in the Senate when the CRA passed (in that chamber). There were some Republicans who voted for the CRA. So we know there is Republican support there.

Secondly, I think our job is that we are going to send the strongest bill we can over to the Senate. The Senate doesn't have a long history of just taking House bills and passing them. I'm sure they are going to put it through their process.

But our job is to pass the strongest bill we can that protects consumers. We want to start at our goal line and not the 50 yard line.

The main argument from Republicans during the hearing was that your bill includes elements of Title II regulation, the section of the 1996 Telecommunications Act that they say gives the FCC too much authority. Is that what's at the heart of the disagreement between Republicans and Democrats?
Doyle: Here's the thing: Two FCC commissioners have tried to do net neutrality under Title I [of the Telecom Act] and they lost those cases twice in court. So when [FCC Chairman] Tom Wheeler did the 2015 Open Internet Order under Title II it was taken to court and the courts upheld it.

I think it's pretty clear what the courts have been saying. This can only be done in Title II.

But we aren't even doing it in Title II, because we're putting elements of Title II into law.

Republicans say the Democrats' bill still gives too much authority to the FCC.
Doyle: Look, this is a compromise bill. We are taking very little of Title II.

This is a bill that puts into statute all the forbearance that Tom Wheeler did in the 2015 FCC order. The concern always was that a future FCC chairman could reinstate the 27 sections and over 700 regulations that the previous FCC forebore. That included the two big ones that the telcos were concerned about: rate regulation and unbundling.

But this legislation puts all the sections and regulations that were forborne into statute so that no new FCC chairman can undo it. It would take an act of Congress for someone to do rate regulation or network unbundling. This was a major step toward the Republicans and the ISPs, which the Republicans chose not to recognize.

What parts of Title II did you leave in?
Doyle: The elements of Title II that we put into this new statute are very, very narrow. We've taken certain sections that set up a general conduct standard which says ISPs cannot have any unjust or unreasonable behavior. It also makes the FCC and not the Federal Trade Commission the agency to police that. This couldn't be properly policed in the FTC. All the expertise, such as the technicians and engineers, are in the FCC. This is where it belongs.

We've also kept sections that restore the legal underpinnings for the Lifeline and Connect America programs [which provide funding for service for low-income and rural customers]. The rest of the 27 chapters and over 700 regulations of Title II that are either not applicable or things that the telcos were concerned the FCC could do to them, we took out.

Do you think the debate really comes down to the fact that Republicans and the ISPs don't want the FCC to have authority over broadband?
Doyle: I think that's pretty clear. What unjust or unreasonable behavior do they think we should allow? There has to be a cop on the beat.

As we all know, the three bright line rules that we've all agreed to -- no blocking, no throttling, no paid prioritization -- that doesn't cover all the bad behavior. We see that with zero-rated data caps; we've seen it with the California firefighters; we've seen it in other instances.

This needs to be a law for the future, too. As new technology emerges, there may be different ways for people to game the system. If the FCC doesn't have some flexibility under the general conduct standard, then all we've done is created three rules that are for the past and not for the future.

What's going to happen next?
Doyle: We're going to mark up my bill. We're doing it in regular order. We had a hearing. We are going to have a subcommittee markup, a full committee markup. Everyone's going to have a chance to have their say.

When will it go to a vote?
Doyle: It could be as early as right before the Easter break, or it could be as late as right after the Easter break. But I think sometime in April is when we could have a vote on the floor.

There's also a case pending in the Federal Appeals Court for the DC Circuit challenging the FCC's repeal of net neutrality. Could that affect what happens on the legislative side?
Doyle: I don't think one affects the other. The courts are going to do what the courts are going to do. But the issue doesn't go away unless we do something legislatively.

The problem with net neutrality is this is an issue that's been bouncing around for 15 years in the courts, because there hasn't been a legislative solution. Once we fix this in statute, that all ends. We are finally going to give some certainty to this issue and resolve it once and for all. That is an issue for the Congress.

Let's say you're able to get your bill through the House and Senate, how likely is it that President Trump will veto it?
Doyle: I don't see any reason he'd veto it. This is not a partisan issue. I don't know the president's personal views on net neutrality, I would assume that like most Americans he's for it.

The only place this bill is controversial is in Washington, DC. It's not controversial out in America. Democrats, Republicans and independents by over 80 percent are for this bill. So this isn't an issue that they're having a raging debate about out in the hinterlands.

I'm the last person to try to get inside Donald Trump's head, but I think if it passes the House and the Senate, the president would sign it. But we'll see what happens.