Republicans Troubled by USDA Promotion of Net Neutrality Rules

A man working on a laptop with net neutrality text on the screen.
(Image credit: Rawf8 via Getty Images)

Some high-profile Senate Republicans are asking the Department of Agriculture not to impose net neutrality conditions on broadband buildout subsidies, conditions that are essentially a USDA imposition of the FCC's scrapped net neutrality rules.

In its rural development broadband ReConnect grant and loan program, applicants get a preference--10 extra points in considering its application--for "applicants that commit to net neutrality."

To get the extra thumb on the scale for their application, according to the USDA, an applicant must promise that it "shall not (1) block lawful content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices, subject to reasonable network management; (2) impair or degrade lawful internet traffic on the basis of internet content, application, or service, or use of a non-harmful device, subject to reasonable network management; and (3) engage in paid prioritization, meaning the management of a broadband provider's network to directly or indirectly favor some traffic over other traffic, including through use of techniques such as traffic shaping, prioritization, resource reservation, or other forms of preferential traffic management, either (a) in exchange for consideration (monetary or otherwise) from a third party, or (b) to benefit an affiliated entity."

Those are essentially the network neutrality rules the Republican-led FCC under chairman Ajit Pai eliminated over current acting chair Jessica Rosenworcel's opposition and which Democrats want to reimpose.

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) said it was "deeply troubling" that USDA had "suggested" it had the authority and expertise to determine what qualifies as "lawful internet traffic."

“Rather than attempting to impose monopoly-era regulations on broadband providers and politicizing the ReConnect program," they wrote. "We strongly urge you to reverse your decision to provide additional scoring points based on USDA’s determination of what constitutes ‘net neutrality'...."If USDA decides to make attempts at regulating the internet absent authority from Congress, it would lead to tremendous legal and marketplace uncertainty," they told the secretary.

"As you know, 'net neutrality' restrictions have been subject to much debate in Congress and at the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that oversees our nation’s telecommunications policy," they told Vilsack. "Any effort to impose unnecessary 'net neutrality' restrictions would be dangerous to our nation’s dynamic broadband economy and threaten future investments in broadband infrastructure."

The FCC under Pai defended eliminating the rules in part because it argued the rules had depressed broadband investment, something Democrats disputed.

Also signing the letter were Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Dan Sullivan (R-Ala.), and Todd Young (R-Ind.).

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.