FCC net neutrality hearing on Feb. 26. Image: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

The GOP’s Net Neutrality Assault Is All Sound and Fury, For Now

The FCC’s antagonists have yet to find a clear legislative path toward overturning the net neutrality regulations.

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Mar 20 2015, 12:50pm

FCC net neutrality hearing on Feb. 26. Image: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Republican lawmakers issued a blistering attack on the Federal Communications Commission's new open internet rules this week during a marathon series of Capitol Hill hearings, but the FCC's antagonists have yet to find a clear legislative path toward overturning the policy.

Instead, the first substantial challenge to the new FCC rules protecting net neutrality—the principle that internet service providers should treat all data equally—is likely to come in federal court. At least three telecom industry trade groups, representing corporate giants like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, are expected to soon file legal challenges to the new policy, Reuters reported Thursday.

Litigation over the new rules, which were adopted last month, could take years and eventually wind up before the Supreme Court, according to industry analysts and even FCC officials.

"The big guys have promised they're going to sue, and I take them at their word," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told a Thursday hearing of the House Energy & Commerce Communications and Technology subcommittee.

In the meantime, the FCC's critics on Capitol Hill are doing their best to attack both the substance of the new policy, which reclassifies broadband internet access as a "telecommunications service" under Title II of the Communications Act, and the process by which the agency approved it.

As a result, the battle over net neutrality has become the latest front in an ideological war on Capitol Hill between Republicans and Democrats over the role of the federal government in regulating corporate America, in this case the communications industry. Communications technologies as a whole account for one-sixth of all US economic activity.

Many GOP net neutrality critics, including lawmakers who have received mountains of campaign cash from telecom industry interests, say the new rules amount to a "government takeover" of the internet that will stifle investment and innovation. They also argue that President Obama—who strongly supported Title II reclassification—exerted improper influence on the FCC, effectively forcing an independent agency to do the White House's bidding.

"A president should be able to weigh in, make his opinions known," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Tuesday. "I don't have a problem with that. But this seems to be very one-sided."

Wheeler vehemently denied that he was bulldozed by President Obama, as some GOP lawmakers have suggested, and insisted that Title II reclassification had been under consideration well before Obama publicly declared his support.

"There were no secret instructions from the White House," Wheeler testified. "I did not, as CEO of an independent agency, feel obligated to follow the president's recommendation."

But many Republicans aren't buying it.

During Thursday's House Energy & Commerce Communications and Technology subcommittee hearing, Rep. Greg Walden, the Oregon Republican who chairs the subcommittee, assailed "the agency's capitulation to the president's demands," which he said came "at the end of a proceeding mired in procedural failures and the White House's behind-the-scenes influence on the FCC's process."

Several of the subcommittee's most powerful Republican members have been major recipients of campaign contributions from cable and telecom industry lobbyists and executives during their careers, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit organization that tracks campaign spending.

Heller believes that the new FCC rules will "regulate and restrict content, and open the door to taxation."

Rep. Walden himself has received a combined $275,749 from interests associated with Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA). Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan has received $426,997, Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois has received $258,586, and Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee has received $129,400 from the same industry interests.

Earlier this month, Rep. Blackburn, who has described net neutrality as "socialistic," introduced a bill that would block the FCC from implementing its new rules, warning that "the Obama administration will stop at nothing in their efforts to control the internet."

But the GOP's anti-net neutrality legislation faces long odds of success—at least for now—because Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat, has vowed to "lead the fight to protect any open internet rules promulgated by the FCC against the inevitable Republican attack against such rules." And even if such legislation passed the Senate, it would face a likely Obama veto.

Some Republican lawmakers used this week's hearings to take political shots at Obama on unrelated issues. Sen. Dean Heller, the conservative Nevada Republican, likened the FCC's new policy to the Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare," a comparison made most famously by his colleague Sen. Ted Cruz, the firebrand Texas Republican and potential presidential candidate.

"It's my opinion that the purpose of the Affordable Care Act was to guarantee that all Americans have the same bad health care," said Sen. Heller. "And I believe that the Title II decision made by this commission is to guarantee all Americans the same bad internet service."

Heller added that he believes that the purpose of the new FCC rules is to "regulate and restrict content, and open the door to taxation."

Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who is also weighing a presidential run, said he was "very concerned about the message this sends to other governments" like China and Russia that aim to control the internet to clamp down on citizens' speech.

Wheeler took strong exception to Rubio's statement.

"When Putin tries to shut down Pussy Riot on Facebook, when China tries to shut down access to Google, when Turkey tries to shut down Twitter, those are absolute violations of what we're talking about here," said Wheeler. "No party, whether in the government or the private sector, should act as a gatekeeper to who gets on the internet.

Matt Wood, policy director at Free Press Action Fund, a DC-based pro-net neutrality advocacy group, said that telecom industry lobbyists and their allies in Congress "need to stop spreading lies about the net neutrality rules."

"They're not Obama's secret plan to take over the internet," Wood said in a statement. "They're not turning internet access into a rate-regulated public utility and they're not online censorship."

The Republican emphasis on Obama's role in the FCC's decision-making process was not lost on many Democratic lawmakers.

"It's very hard to make a case against net neutrality, and these members don't want to go home and make that case," said Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Democrat who represents the District of Columbia. "So they are trying to make the case against hearing the opinion of the president of the United States on net neutrality."

A recent poll conducted by Vox Populi Polling found that 81 percent of voters nationwide—including 81 percent of Republicans—believe that "it is critical to maintain" an internet where service providers cannot block or discriminate against content, or strike "paid prioritization deals," which are principles at the heart of the FCC's new rules.

The poll results suggest that voters are not as ideologically divided about net neutrality as their representatives on Capitol Hill, who have turned the issue into a bitterly contested political fight.

That should come as no surprise, given the toxic political climate on Capitol Hill, where Republicans seem hell-bent on opposing anything that President Obama supports. But for now at least, GOP opponents of net neutrality don't have a clear path to successfully translate their sound and fury over the issue into successful legislation rolling back the new rules.