When ISPs responded to President Obama’s belated support of Title II based neutrality rules, one of the key refrains was that the FCC was a bunch of “unelected representatives” and we really should rely on a bickering, divided Congress to solve net neutrality for us. AT&T, for example, proclaimed it would sue over FCC Title II rules and that protecting consumers is a decision “more properly made by the Congress.” Comcast similarly agreed, insisting that such a “radical reversal of consistent contrary precedent should be taken up by the Congress.” Obviously it’s not Democracy these companies are interested in as much as it is the knowledge they have the majority of Congress comfortably tucked away in their back pockets.
And indeed, right on schedule, campaign cash hungry politicians are stumbling over themselves to please AT&T, Verizon and Comcast — and are looking for any and every Congressional option to prevent the FCC from imposing real neutrality rules. Senator John Thune is among several lawmakers looking for a “legislative fix” to hamstring the FCC. Rep. Bob Goodlatte is similarly looking to craft rules that hinder the FCC’s ability to act. Other politicians are looking to curtail the FCC’s already dwindling funding.
As we’ve long noted, the fact that neutrality is now seen as a partisan issue is ridiculous, as all neutrality supporters are looking for is are rules that protect consumers and keep the Internet healthy, something that benefits everyone. Still, the GOP specifically has been pushing for the last year to rewrite The Communications Act (mostly to the benefit of the AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and MPAA’s of the world), and that effort is now going to be used to fight a very vocal proxy war against the FCC and Title II neutrality rules:
“House Republicans have spent more than a year reviewing possible changes to the Communications Act, which was last updated in the mid-1990s, and the new Senate GOP majority is expected to begin a similar process in 2015. Already, there are signs the party is eager to transform the debate into a proxy war over net neutrality.
“Each time it has tried to regulate the Internet, the FCC has been overruled by the courts because existing telecommunications laws were written decades ago for a completely different era,” the Thune spokeswoman said. “The most straightforward approach would be for Congress to update and modernize those laws to take into account technological transformations while not discouraging the private-sector investment and innovation that is critical for consumers and our nation’s modern economy.”
Of course what Thune means when he says “modernized” is a new Communications Act that strips away the lion’s share of dwindling regulatory authority and lets the incumbent ISPs run amok in the uncompetitive broadband playground previous ISP-lobbyist-written laws helped create. The same folks who insist they’re only looking out for the health of the market are the same individuals willfully oblivious to the lack of health in the uncompetitive broadband market, or the fact that letting lumbering duopolists literally write telecom law might not be the healthiest option when it comes to giving innovators or healthy markets a leg up.
For a moment there it looked like neutrality supporters had all of the momentum in getting tougher rules passed, resulting in a SOPA-esque groundswell of support for Title II protections. While Wheeler’s certainly justified in taking time to get the rules right — his delays are opening the window to a million and one legislative, political and public relations efforts to neuter his agency before his rules (whether that’s hybrid or pure Title II) even get their grand unveiling. The next FCC meeting isn’t until January 29, 2015, and it’s possible that Wheeler’s proposal may not see the light of day until March.
Until then, we’ll get to enjoy a shitshow where the big ISPs pay friends in Congress to push draft legislative “fixes” written by ISP lobbyists under the pretense they’re engaged in a noble battle against the menace of government over-reach. In reality for many neutrality opponents in Congress it’s simply about protecting the duopoly stranglehold on uncompetitive markets, and the ability to use that stranglehold to develop new and creative ways to raise rates and thwart competitors. Of course Presidential veto and partisan bickering mean none of these efforts are likely to get very far, and this may just be an instance where the inability of Congress to actually accomplish anything of worth may wind up helping consumers.