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Net Neutrality Push Is Coming to Shove

U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone
U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) (Image credit: U.S. Congress)

The return of rules against blocking, throttling and paid prioritization is building momentum given that Congress is in the hands of Democrats, most of whom opposed deregulation of internet access, and the FCC is currently being helmed by Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel, who strongly opposed deregulation under the previous chairman.

That could mean the return of rules that internet service providers argue limit their ability to create innovative business models or invest in the buildouts that will help close the digital divide or upgrade service.

Even as the Big Tech content giants like Amazon, Google, Facebook and Twitter have taken up much of the regulatory spotlight, the Democrats’ return to control of the government has brought re-regulating ISPs back into the picture. It’s likely both ISPs and social media companies are in for some tough new oversight.

House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said restoring rules, and getting the FCC back in the business of regulating internet access, will be high on his agenda.

“Net neutrality is about more than a prohibition on blocking, throttling and paid prioritization,” Pallone told a virtual audience of competitive carriers and computer companies. “By repealing net neutrality, the Trump FCC abdicated the FCC’s authority over this essential service. That’s not good for consumers or small businesses, for economic production or for free speech. This wrong must be righted.”

Seeing that re-regulatory handwriting on the wall — possibly including mandatory access and rate regulation, given the pandemic’s emphasis on broadband for all — advocates for the old rules have come out in numbers to call for their return.

In a petition for reconsideration from Common Cause, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, New America’s Open Technology Institute, the United Church of Christ, OC Inc. and Free Press — all of which opposed the FCC's Restoring Internet Freedom order under Trump-era chairman Ajit Pai — called for reimposition of the rules, tying that to the pandemic.

The petition argues deregulation "weakened the FCC’s legal authority to provide low-income households with affordable broadband through the Lifeline program at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has made the need for connectivity greater than ever."

In a separate petition, competitive carriers and computer companies echoed the call for restoring the rules, but tied it to another hot-button issue: public safety.

The Biden administration has also withdrawn the previous Justice Department’s challenge to a tough new California net-neutrality law, though ISPs continue to challenge the measure, which was adopted in response to the FCC’s RIF deregulation.

Rosenworcel said of that decision: “Washington is listening to the American people, who overwhelmingly support an open internet, and is charting a course to once again make net neutrality the law of the land.”