The Open Internet Just Got a Powerful Ally in Congress

The leader will work to "ensure that priority arrangements that harm consumers are prohibited."

Jul 30 2014, 2:00am

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has given the Federal Communications Commission a much-needed political boost as the agency decides whether to move toward a more robust Open Internet policy favored by many net neutrality advocates.

In a letter to David Segal, the executive director of Demand Progress, a liberal advocacy group, Reid wrote that he has "strongly and publicly supported net neutrality" since 2006. Reid was responding to a letter that Segal's group sent the lawmaker, along with several other organizations including CREDO, Daily Kos, and the Free Press Action Fund.

The groups asked Reid to support their efforts to convince the FCC to reclassify broadband service under Title II of the Communications Act, a move that would give the agency greater authority to ensure that broadband providers don't block or discriminate against online services—two principles that are at the heart of net neutrality.

The FCC's existing net neutrality rules were thrown out by a federal court that struck down most of the agency's 2010 open internet order in January. In the wake of that ruling, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed new rules under Section 706 of the Communications Act that fall short of Title II reclassification, and would open the door to so-called "paid prioritization," in which broadband providers could strike special deals with Internet companies for preferential treatment.

Wheeler's proposal prompted howls of protest from net neutrality advocates, who argue that Title II reclassification is necessary to ensure that the Internet remains the open, dynamic platform that has spawned a generation of tech innovation and billions of dollars in economic growth. More than 1.1 million people have filed comments with the FCC, many of them asking for broadband reclassification.

Although Reid did not explicitly endorse reclassification, he did say that he will "lead the fight to protect any Open Internet rules promulgated by the FCC against the inevitable Republican attack against such rules." Reid added that he would would work to "ensure that priority arrangements that harm consumers are prohibited."

In an interview with Motherboard, Segal, whose group supports Title II reclassification, said that Reid's letter "moves the ball forward in two important ways."

"First, Reid's letter undercuts the FCC's argument that Senate Democrats won't support a Title II order," Segal said. "Second, it undercuts the FCC's argument that there won't be much of a political fight over a 706 order. Reid makes clear that he expects a political fight either way, and with his backing, now the FCC can decide this issue based on the merits, not on the politics."

Segal makes a good point. The simple fact is that many Republican lawmakers oppose any kind of net neutrality rules whatsoever, whether issued under the authority of Section 706 or Title II.

For example, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican who serves as Vice Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the FCC, has called net neutrality rules "socialistic," a view that is shared by many members of her caucus. (Over the last decade, AT&T and Verizon have been Blackburn's second and third largest donors, pouring $66,750 and $59,650 into her campaigns, respectively, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.)

Last month, Wheeler met with several top tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, who urged him to reclassify broadband under Title II. According to an ex parte filing by Paul Sieminski, general counsel of Automattic, which makes the WordPress software, Wheeler said that he "believes it is politically more difficult to rely on Title II."

"We think the Chairman should not focus on what's easiest to do in Washington, DC," Sieminski wrote in his filing. "Rather, the FCC Chairman should begin with the correct policy, which is keeping access to the Internet open and neutral as it has been historically."

Kim Hart, a FCC spokesperson, declined to comment on Reid's letter.

The nation's largest cable and telecom companies, including Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T vehemently oppose Title II reclassification, which they say would allow "unprecedented government micromanagement of all aspects of the Internet economy." These companies say that such a move would deter them from making capital investments needed to improve and expand their service.

Segal argues that if Reid believes that there will be a political fight either way, that frees up Wheeler and the FCC to decide the issue on the merits, not the politics. And on the merits, Segal and other net neutrality advocates argue, Title II is necessary to ensure that strong Open Internet protections are in place.

Craig Aaron, the president and CEO of Free Press Action Fund, a DC-based public interest group, agrees.

"Here's why this letter matters," Aaron told Motherboard. "There's no longer any question that Tom Wheeler has the political support to do the right thing. And the right thing is reclassifying broadband access providers as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act. Senator Reid makes clear that when Wheeler reclassifies that the Senate leadership will have his back."