Lawmakers Spar Over True Meaning of Net Neutrality

Reps. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.). (Rob Kunzig/Morning Consult)

Democratic and Republican members of Congress both support net neutrality — they just have different definitions for the term.

That’s the key takeaway from a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on oversight and reauthorization of the Federal Communications Commission, featuring testimony from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai (R) and Commissioners Michael O’Rielly (R) and Mignon Clyburn (D).

Members of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee sparred over which party represents the true defenders and champions of a free and open internet — a seemingly arcane semantics debate, but one that reflects arguments likely to grow louder as the FCC’s Republican majority moves forward on repealing the 2015 net neutrality rules.

Tuesday’s hearing was meant to focus on standard agency oversight and to discuss draft legislation that would reauthorize the FCC — a step that has not been taken since 1990 — but quickly turned to debate over the FCC’s Open Internet Order.

“I would be remiss by not discussing net neutrality,” Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who leads the subcommittee, said in her opening remarks. “The commission’s decision in 2015 to reclassify the internet as a public utility was a power grab laced with the irony of suffocating the most innovative part of our economy with a 1930s era law.”

The Tennessee Republican sought to draw a distinction between supporting a rollback of the net neutrality protections and the idea that such a move would limit internet access for users, saying that “Republicans have always supported a free and open internet.”

Republicans say net neutrality limits investment and growth of internet service providers, while advocates say a rollback of the Obama-era regulation would allow ISPs to throttle, block or slow connectivity.

GOP lawmakers presented themselves as advocates of the concept of net neutrality, while simultaneously targeting the 2015 Open Internet Order that reclassified the internet as a public utility. Their argument echoed one that has been used by ISPs like Comcast Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc.

When asked by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) if he supports net neutrality, Pai said he favors “a free and open internet.”

O’Rielly added that “the term net neutrality means so many different things these days than it once did.”

Democratic lawmakers sought to draw a contrast between Republicans’ stated support for an open internet and their efforts to dismantle the net neutrality rules.

“Everybody says they’re for an open internet,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.). “The question I have is: Why change the existing regime where everyone agrees that there is an open internet?”

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) criticized Pai for moving forward with “an agenda that is anti-consumer, anti-small business, anti-competition, anti-innovation, and anti-opportunity.”

“The internet isn’t just an ISP’s connection to the consumer; it’s a vast array of networks, services, and applications,” said Doyle, the panel’s ranking member. “Ignoring the rest of the ecosystem is to ignore the part of the internet that is the most vibrant and innovative.”

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) also took issue with Pai’s stated support for net neutrality, telling him that his chairmanship “rests on the altar of dismantling net neutrality as we know it.”

“With all due respect to you, I don’t think it’s a credible statement to say that you support it,” she added.

Morning Consult