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House Votes to Re-Regulate Internet Access

The House voted Wednesday (April 10) 232 to 190 (with one Republican voting aye) to pass the Democrat-backed Save the Internet Act (HR 1644), which would restore FCC's Title II based rules against blocking, throttling and paid prioritization adopted under the previous, Democratic, administration, plus reinstate a general conduct standard to get at future conduct unbecoming an open internet but not falling under those rules.

But the victory looks to be short-lived. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said the bill will be DOA in the Senate (echoed Wednesday by house Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy [R-Calif.]) and the Office of Management and Budget has recommended the President veto the bill if it does somehow get to the President's desk.

Even hard-core net neutrality activists at Fight for the Future, which has been pushing hard for the bill, were talking about the next fight. While Deputy Director Evan Greer pointed out that some thought the FCC would never impose Title II regs--it did--and that the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) would become law--it didn't--Greer also said: "[I]t's important to understand the significance of this bill as a tool for getting lawmakers on the record in support of strong net neutrality rules, moving us closer toward victory, whether it comes this year or after 2020 with a new FCC chair."

Related: Net Neutrality Bill Progress Draws Jeers, Cheers

Greer pointed out that millions had followed the previous hearings and markups on the bill, as well as the floor debate, via Twitch--House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also talked about that streaming audience and the support it showed for strong net neutrality rules.

House passage came after an hour of debate Tuesday (April 9) and after votes on a dozen amendments over two days--out of 19 amendments submitted. Democrats supported a number of the Republican amendments "in the spirit of bipartisanship," and with the tongue-in-cheek tweak that they hoped that now meant the Republicans would join them in voting for the bill--they didn't. Republicans also supported some of the Democrat's amendments, though in some cases saying the did not agree with them.

Ultimately, all the amendments were approved, either unanimously by voice vote or by strong majorities in recorded votes.

Related: Walden Says It Is Time For Serious Debate About Breaking Up Edge

One amendment that was accepted unanimously called for a GAO study of "all entities on the virtuous cycle of the internet ecosystem and whether such rules protect the access of consumers to a free and open internet." That would include Facebook, Google and YouTube. Doyle said he agreed there were problems on the edge, and while the bill was on a different subject, Democrats would work with Republicans on the issue.

Another amendment agreed to on a bipartisan basis requires the FCC to improve and correct its broadband availability data, another issue on which there is bipartisan support, as well as one mandating a GAO report on rural broadband.

Given that the bill almost certainly will not become law, if they are going to study the impact of the edge on a neutral net and broadband deployment, or light a fire under the FCC to collect better broadband data, it will have to come via some other vehicle.

The sound and fury of the debate on the bill, and the heated proceedings Wednesday surrounding its passage, showed just how divided the divided Congress is on the issue, despite talk about net neutrality being bipartisan and the actual bipartisan agreement that some form of rules are needed to end the legal back-and-forth over the government's authority to regulate the 'net.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, said the bill was a carefully crafted attempt to balance the needs of having a cop on the beat without weighing the industry down.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), ranking member of the committee, called the Democrat-backed bill "another plank in their socialist agenda" that would allow the FCC to "run amok" with regulations.

As the bill moved to a final vote Wednesday, Walden also said it could open the "floodgates" to an internet tax cash grab by state and local governments.

He proposed sending the bill back to committee to make sure it did not do that.

Rep. Doyle said nothing in the bill gives the FCC the authority to modify federal law, specifically the Internet Tax Freedom Act. "This is a complete non-issue" and a "last-ditch "effort to delay and confuse people. Doyle said the Republicans want a consumer-be-damned "wild, wild West." He pointed out that the Republicans aren't in charge now (to cheers from the Democrats), and called for the motion to be defeated and shouted for passage of the bill.

The motion was defeated 216 to 204.

Tuesday's debate had made clear that the sides would not be coming together anytime soon.

Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) said the bill was not a socialist initiative, but an "American" one, and a way to promote rural broadband deployment.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said the Republicans don't want a cop on the beat. She also said stood up for the edge providers she represents. "We don't want any mitts on the internet," she said.

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) said it was humorous that Republicans say they don't want a government takeover of the Internet when the only one talking about that was the President when he talked about nationalizing 5G. Walden countered that the only potential nationalizing of 5G was contained in the bill.

He agreed that there was consensus on rules against blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization, bu that Republicans didn't want any other rules so ISPs could find ways to game the system. "I didn't come to Congress to work for internet service providers," he said, implying Republicans may have. He signaled that the reason he wanted a general conduct standard was so the government could say "you can't do that," about zero rating plans and interconnection issues. "The three bright lines don't cut it anymore," he said, adding that the bill was on "the right side of history."

Related: CBO Scores Net Neutrality Bill Cost as Negligible

Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio), ranking member of the Communications Subcommittee, said the bill was not about net neutrality at all. He said there is agreement on principles to protect and open internet. He called for a "no" vote and a return to negotiations. He aaid he did want a cop on the beat, which should include on edge providers, and one who would not use its club on pro-consumer prioritization.

Pelosi said she was defending the open internet as well as standing with Anna Eshoo, who she called the "godmother of network neutrality," to restore protections "destroyed" by the Trump Administration and check discriminatory conduct by ISPs. She said the debate was not just about net neutrality, but about the quality of life.

Rep. Bill Johnson, another Ohio Republican, called the "disingenuous" bill "Another Big Government Attempt to Grab the Internet Act." He said the bill would create additional barriers to deployment. "The only saving the Internet needs is from heavy-handed Washington regulations.

With Senate passage a nonstarter and both sides apparently dug in--Democrats say the general conduct standard is a must and Republicans say it is a nonstarter--it is hard to see where a bipartisan bill emerges unless one side or the other gives on that key point.

Absent that, the battle over the 'net will continue to be waged in the courts, where both sides are awaiting a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on the challenge to the FCC's Restoring Internet Freedom Act, which nullified the rules Democrats are attempting to restore. 

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.