On March 6, 2019, Democrats in the House and the Senate introduced the Save the Internet Act of 2019. The legislation would restore net neutrality rules that were repealed by the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) in December 2017.
The three-page bill:
- repeals the FCC’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order (“RIF Order”) adopted on December 14, 2017 (FCC 17–166);
- prohibits the FCC from reissuing the RIF Order or adopting rules that are substantially the same as those in the RIF Order; and
- restores the FCC’s Open Internet Order (“OI Order”) adopted on February 26, 2015 (FCC 15–24).
Net neutrality, short for network neutrality, is the principle that all internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon should treat all content flowing through their networks equally. Tim Wu, professor at Columbia Law School, coined the term in 2003 in his paper discussing broadband discrimination and the need for anti-discrimination regulations. Net neutrality ensures that anyone with internet access will not be charged extra for specific content, have content blocked, or experience slowed service.
In February 2015, the FCC under the former Chairman Tom Wheeler adopted the OI Order that reclassified broadband as a Title II telecommunications service under the Communications Act of 1934 and thereby placed broadband providers under stricter regulation by treating the Internet as a public utility like the telephone service. The Order focused on three specific rules of no blocking, no throttling, and no paid prioritization. Major telecommunications companies sued the FCC to challenge the new rules, which the D.C. Court of Appeals upheld in June 2016.
In January 2017, President Trump appointed Ajit Pai as the Chairman of the FCC. The 2017 RIF Order, which went into effect as of June 11, 2018, rolled back the 2015 rules. The RIF Order reclassified broadband as an information service subject to much lighter regulation and repealed the rules against blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization. Consumers were not to address any alleged net neutrality violations through the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”), but unless the violations are illegal under existing antitrust law there is not much the FTC can do. Meanwhile, state legislators have responded by introducing net neutrality legislation at the state level.
The new bill is being lead-sponsored by Pennsylvania Representative Mike Doyle in the House and Massachusetts Senator Edward J. Markey in the Senate. Gigi Sohn, who was counselor to the former FCC Chairman Wheeler, said the new bill would “promote competition and ensure affordable access in the broadband market” and would “return the Internet to where it belongs – in the hands of Internet users.” On the other hand, FCC Chairman Pai in his statement called the new bill “heavy-handed regulation from the 1930s” and said that the “light approach to Internet regulation has been a success” especially in promoting transparency and private investment.
The new bill will likely find support in the House, where Democrats have a majority, but it will have a difficult time passing through the Republican-controlled Senate. It remains to be seen whether a compromise will be reached over a clear partisan divide on what net neutrality rules should look like.