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The GOP Is Trying to Nuke Net Neutrality With a Budget Bill Sneak Attack

Buried on page 109 of $20 billion appropriations bill.

Sam Gustin

Sam Gustin

Image: NMA/YouTube

Republicans on Capitol Hill have been scheming to kill the US government's landmark new open internet policy ever since it was approved—and their latest gambit is a particularly crafty sneak attack.

The House GOP 2016 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill contains three riders buried two-thirds of the way through the 156-page bill aimed at preventing the Federal Communications Commission from enforcing its new net neutrality rules, which are designed to ensure that broadband companies treat internet data equally.

The $20.2 billion budget bill, which was unveiled Wednesday and funds several major government agencies, would prohibit the FCC from implementing the new rules until several industry court challenges have been decided. That could take years and give net neutrality opponents enough time to dismantle the rules permanently under a new administration.

Net neutrality supporters lambasted the House GOP's tactic as a cynical ploy to add net neutrality-killing language to a must-pass budget bill that funds the Treasury Department, the Judiciary, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and several other agencies.

"That a few members of Congress use backroom deals and backdoor tricks to oppose and undermine common-sense open internet principles shows how little they know or care about the law or the overwhelming support these rules have from businesses, innovators and individual Internet users everywhere," said Matt Wood, policy director at Free Press, a DC-based public interest group.

The high level of public support for internet openness hasn't dissuaded hardcore anti-net neutrality GOP lawmakers

The House GOP's latest anti-net neutrality effort comes just two days before the FCC's new rules are scheduled to take effect on Friday, and underscores the growing desperation on the part of anti-net neutrality forces to roll back one of the most significant tech policy shifts in a generation.

The new FCC rules prohibit blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization—three concepts that are at the heart of net neutrality. Paid prioritization deals are commercial contracts in which ISPs strike special arrangements with deep-pocketed companies for preferential treatment, potentially snuffing out startups.

"The Appropriations Committee proposal reflects an extremism out of step with the American people, and even with the broadband providers themselves," said Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, a DC-based advocacy group. "Even the carriers opposing the FCC's decision in federal court have not attempted to stay the three 'bright line' net neutrality rules that prevent broadband providers from blocking, degrading or prioritizing content."

Several months ago, 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.

But the high level of public support for internet openness hasn't dissuaded hardcore anti-net neutrality GOP lawmakers—many of whom have received mountains of cash from the broadband industry—from repeatedly seeking to torpedo the new rules.

Rep. Hal Rogers, the Kentucky Republican who chairs the Appropriations committee, insisted that the bill will maintain "an open marketplace that allows a fair and level playing field for all."

"While making good use of limited tax dollars, this legislation also makes great strides in reining in wasteful spending, and stopping harmful and unnecessary bureaucratic overreach," Rogers said in a statement.

The GOP bill also slashes the FCC's operating budget for next year—a move that open internet advocates call petty retribution against the agency in retaliation for the new policy. The bill allocates $315 million for the FCC in 2016, a $25 million cut from 2015, and $73 million below the agency's request.

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"The Chairman of the Appropriations Committee made it clear he intended to punish the FCC for doing its job, and he has made good on that threat," said Feld, referring to Rogers. Will the House GOP succeed in using a backdoor budget trick to kill net neutrality? It's hard to tell at this point, according to Feld.

"Whether we ultimately end up with clean bills or if the riders survive depends a lot on what kind of pushback members receive from the public and stakeholders, and whether the Republicans want to make the appropriations process highly partisan or want to position themselves as more pragmatic," said Feld.