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Republicans say they want net neutrality rules, too

The problem is, they don’t want the FCC to be the cop on the beat.

House GOP
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., introduced one of three Republican-backed net neutrality bills in the House.
Tom Williams

Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers says it's time for Congress to put net neutrality protections into law.

McMorris Rodgers, of Washington state, last month introduced legislation to restore net neutrality safeguards that the Republican-led Federal Communications Commission dismantled in late 2017. In an interview with CNET, she said politicians on both sides of the aisles need to come together to pass legislation that codifies the three "bright line" rules that were part of the Obama-era net neutrality regulations adopted by the FCC in 2015.

Like her Democratic colleagues, McMorris Rodgers agrees that rules are needed to ban internet service providers from blocking or slowing web traffic on their networks. She even agrees with Democrats and consumer advocates that broadband providers shouldn't be charging companies for speedier access to consumers.

But she stops short of supporting the Democrats' net neutrality bill -- the Save the Internet Act -- that's been introduced in the House and Senate, because she says it gives the FCC too much authority. Her bill, as well as two others introduced by Republicans in February, includes the bright-line rules, but still strips the FCC of oversight.  Instead, it makes the Federal Trade Commission the net neutrality watchdog.

Now playing: Watch this: 'Save the Internet Act' aims to restore net neutrality

Democrats like Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, who chairs the subcommittee in the House Energy and Commerce Committee that's considering the bill, says McMorris Rodgers' bill and the other Republican efforts don't do enough to protect consumers.

With Democrats controlling the House and with Republicans in charge of the Senate, the two sides seem to be at a standstill. But McMorris Rodgers says she's hopeful a bipartisan solution can be hashed out.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

What does your net neutrality bill do?
McMorris Rodgers: The legislation that I introduced is based upon a law passed in Washington state that enjoyed bipartisan support. It codifies the bright-line rules -- the ban on paid prioritization, no blocking, no throttling -- and it includes a transparency provision. It addresses what most people will point to when they are talking about the importance of Congress taking action.

Why do you oppose the Democrats' Save the Internet Act, which also puts the bright line rules into law?
McMorris Rodgers: I am most concerned about a regulatory approach that classifies the internet under Title II [of the Telecommunications Act] and applies 1930s regulations to the internet. I am concerned about the impact on innovation and investment. When we saw the [2015] FCC regulations put in place, it resulted in a pulling back of investment among small and medium-sized ISPs. These are the ones that operate largely in rural and underserved areas.  

I represent a district that still has some tremendous broadband needs. We need more deployment, and I am concerned that these areas are being left behind and that this kind of an approach will have even more of a negative impact on those deployments.

Rep. Doyle says that his bill forebears or cuts out portions of Title II regulation that ISPs say gives the government too much authority, such as the potential to regulate rates or provisions that might force them to share their infrastructure with competitors.
I disagree with the Title II regulation of the Internet because it gave the FCC overly broad authority. While I believe the FCC can be the enforcement agency, their authority should be specific and limited to the bright-lines, which is what my bill will do. Title II gave too much authority to the FCC. It included a vague and arbitrary General Conduct Standard, and led to overly broad authority that allowed the FCC to regulate rates, unbundle services, prevent zero-rating. I don't support the Democrats' bill because it does not prevent those same authorities from being used in the future.

But my hope is that we can reach a bipartisan solution where Republicans and Democrats sit down and say we need to take action. It's time for Congress to legislate. For too many years we've seen different chairmen at the FCC decide how to handle net neutrality concerns rather than the elected representatives of the people.

Rep. Doyle has criticized Republicans for taking a partisan approach to their legislation. He said he hadn't heard from any Republicans before your bill and the two others were introduced in early February. Did you reach out to Rep. Doyle or other Democrats before introducing your bill?
Republicans have been in the majority the last few years, and we have been reaching out to Democrats and wanting to work in a bipartisan fashion. I really believe there is an opportunity here. This is all part of the legislative process, and hopefully this will lead us to having more conversations and allow us to move forward to an agreed-upon bill.

Have you had any discussions with Rep. Doyle or anyone else on the other side?
I will. But it works both ways. He's the chairman of the subcommittee. And if they desire to reach a bipartisan solution and not just have a political talking point, then we need to open up lines of communication.

But the Democrats gave us very little heads-up that they were introducing this bill. And they are moving it extremely quickly. So far they are doing it without Republicans.

What if you can't work out a bipartisan solution? Should states continue to pass their own net neutrality laws, as your home state of Washington has done?

I believe that the federal government needs to act; that Congress needs to act. This is an issue that's been debated at the FCC, the courts, the states, which just shows the need for Congress to clarify what the law is. Consumers expect us to take action to ensure there is no blocking, no throttling and no paid prioritization.

Just to clarify, the Federal Appeals court for the DC Circuit actually did uphold the FCC's authority to reclassify broadband under Title II. But the court made it clear in two previous decisions that the agency's authority could not come from Title I.
The best way to clarify all of this is for Congress to act. And I will reach out to Mike Doyle. 

Updated 5:27 p.m.: Rep. McMorris Rodgers clarified her position on the Democrats' proposal to keep parts of Title II regulation.