Sen. Thune: Time for Net Neutrality Regulation

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, took to the Senate floor to say it was time to put the fear-mongering aside and protect the open internet with bipartisan legislation, the kind of legislation Thune said he had offered but then-chairman Tom Wheeler rejected.

That came just before the FCC was to vote on the proposal to roll back Title II classification. 

Thune said there are many upset about how FCC chairman Ajit Pai is proceeding—with the Title II rollback—just as he was when the FCC reclassified under Title II when he previously suggested legislation was the better route. 

Thune said the vote to start the Title II rollback did not create certainty for the internet and that there was more work to do. He said there was an opportunity for Congress to provide clear rules of the road for the internet after talking with all stakeholders.

"My preference would be to begin bipartisan work on a bill without further delay." He said he would be happy to meet with any of his colleagues. 

Hill Democrats have signaled that such bipartisan legislation could be a tough sell, particularly given how they see Republicans dealing with issues like healthcare. 

For example, House Energy & Commerce Committee ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said at a pro-Title II rally when asked if there were some legislative compromise on net neutrality rules that there was no reason to believe the Republicans would support substantive protections. "The well is already poisoned," he said.

Thune’s entire statement is reprinted below:

Mr. President, the internet worked great in 2014 when there were no federal net neutrality rules.

Truth be told, even after the Obama-era Federal Communications Commission applied Depression-era phone monopoly regulations to broadband in 2015, most Americans likely saw little or no difference in their internet experience.

The internet still creates jobs, expands educational opportunities, keeps us in touch with loved ones, and – as a bonus – it’s often really entertaining.

This internet that we know and love isn’t going to fall apart anytime soon no matter what the FCC decides.  But there are important policy questions that need to be answered about how the internet will grow and develop into the future.

So let’s put the apocalyptic rhetoric and fear mongering aside.

The internet doesn’t belong to just Republicans, Democrats, big Silicon Valley tech companies, internet service providers, small Silicon Prairie start-ups, or the federal government.

It belongs to everyone – it is global – and it is best when it is free and open.

Today, as the FCC reconsiders the flawed broadband regulations it issued only two years ago, Congress should look back at the path we could have taken but didn’t.

In November 2014, I offered former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to come together to craft a permanent legislative solution banning controversial practices known as blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization of internet traffic.

With colleagues in the House of Representatives, I even put forward a draft bill doing exactly that. It wasn’t a final offer, but rather an outreach to get the conversation started.

I thought the time and opportunity to protect the open internet on a bipartisan basis had arrived.

Through bipartisan legislation, I believed Congress should put into statute widely-accepted principles of network management, commonly called “net neutrality.”

Our idea for legislation was straightforward: combine protections ensuring that owners of broadband infrastructure can’t use their role to manipulate the user experience with those guaranteeing a continuation of the light-touch regulatory policies that helped the internet thrive for two decades.

But Chairman Wheeler rejected our idea for bipartisan legislation. Instead, he and his staff lobbied to block such discussions from happening in Congress.

He then, with only partisan support, issued an order that gave the FCC authority to regulate the internet under old laws designed for phone monopolies and simultaneously removed all authority the Federal Trade Commission had to police broadband providers.

I represent, South Dakota, a rural state that is home to some small, but still very innovative technology businesses. But in other parts of the state, communities lack access to high-speed broadband.

In the debate over the FCC regulating broadband with rules designed for phone monopolies, there were many concerns that Chairman Wheeler’s approach would create uncertainty that “chills investment.”

Chilling investment” is a term one often hears among the business community. To me, what it really means is that many Americans in rural communities will have to wait longer before they have an opportunity to select high-speed internet service.

Today, there are 34 million Americans who lack access to broadband services at home.

As innovation on the internet thrives, demand for data rises, and the stock market hits all-time highs, one would have expected broadband investment to continue growing as it had for two decades.

‘But according to one analysis, annual investment actually went down 5.5 percent in 2016 compared to 2014.

This is a troubling sign that private investment may be having second thoughts about the ability to turn capital expenditures into future profits under an excessive regulatory regime.

Chairman Wheeler assured the public that his FCC would not use new authority over the internet to aggressively restrict many regular online practices.

But he could not offer assurances that, as years pass and administrations change, such regulatory restraint would remain.

His order gives wide legal latitude for any future FCC – not bound by his commitments – to touch any and every corner of the internet.

After all, unless grounded in legislation, partisan policy changes through administrative action can be fleeting.

Today’s action at the FCC aptly underscores the concern that the FCC’s partisan approach to internet policy in 2015 did not put the internet on a solid foundation.

I know that many are upset about what the FCC is doing. I felt much the same way two years ago when the FCC voted to proceed after my bipartisan outreach had been rejected.

We should not, however, view the FCC’s action today as a final outcome.  While I commend Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioner Mike O’Rielly for taking this necessary step, I fully recognize that today’s action alone does not create ideal certainty for the internet. There is more work yet to do.

In politics, it is rare to get a second chance at bipartisan compromise, yet right now we have an opportunity to accomplish what eluded us two years ago—clear and certain rules in statute to protect the open internet.

We have another chance to sit down, to discuss every stakeholder’s concerns, and to work toward the common goal of protecting the internet.

While the FCC’s 2015 order may soon be consigned to the dustbin of history, the last few months have shown that political winds can and often do shift suddenly.

To my colleagues in both the majority and minority, the only way to truly provide legal and political certainty for open internet protections is for Congress to pass bipartisan legislation.

We need a statute offering clear and enduring rules that balance innovation and investment throughout the entire internet ecosystem.

In crafting rules, we need to listen to the concerns of all Americans who support an open internet but who may have differing opinions about the greatest threats to online freedom.

For some Americans, the greatest concern is meddling by internet service providers, and for others it is unelected bureaucrats attempting to “overprotect” Americans from products and services they actually like.

Online innovation is a virtuous circle—online companies need robust and widely available broadband networks to reach their customers, and internet service providers need the online experience to be compelling enough to drive subscriber demand.

We need to work together, collaboratively to find the right policies for the internet.

I firmly believe we can find common ground to protect the internet so long as we don’t fixate on the misguided notion that monopoly regulation is the only way to preserve it.

While some may wish to wait until the activities at the FCC and in the courts have completely run their course, my preference would be to begin bipartisan work on such legislation without any further delay. Innovation and job creation should no longer take a backseat to partisan point-scoring.  It is time for Congress to finally settle this matter. I am happy to meet at any time with any of my colleagues who are serious about discussing a path forward.

I would also welcome discussing any new open internet proposals from my colleagues that balance the need for both innovation and investment.

John Eggerton

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.