In a much-anticipated effort to reinstate net neutrality provisions, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) introduced a bill today that would codify free internet regulations into law. Titled The 21st Century Internet Act, the measure would institute the basic outlines of the Federal Communication Commission’s 2015 Open Internet order, which banned the throttling and blocking of content as well as harmful paid prioritization practices. In an even more surprising move, however, the Republican congressman has signed on to a Democrat-led effort to reinstate the net neutrality rules that the FCC voted to repeal late last year.
Last December, when the FCC called a vote to repeal net neutrality, Coffman was the first Republican to ask the commission to delay its vote. In an open letter, the congressman asked the FCC to allow time for the legislature to craft a replacement bill that could work as a compromise between the regulations put in place by the Open Internet Order and earlier, more lax rules.
“The Internet has been and remains a transformative tool, and I am concerned any action you may take to alter the rules under which it functions may well have significant unanticipated negative consequences,” Coffman said. “I believe Congress can find the right balance of light-touch regulatory authority while celebrating the same open Internet protections that exist today.”
The 21st Century Internet Act aims to restructure the current framework by which the internet has been governed since the ‘90s. Former net neutrality debates have focused around which Telecommunications Act classification best fits broadband. Under Title I, broadband would be identified as a service; under Title II, it would define it as a utility, like running water and electricity. The Obama commission’s Open Internet Order classified broadband as a Title II utility, prohibiting providers from throttling, blocking, or offering paid fast lanes. Two years later, Pai’s FCC voted to redefine broadband as a service, therefore removing all of the legal ground for the FCC to ensure that providers treat all internet traffic equally.
Coffman’s bill moves past this argument
Coffman’s bill moves past this argument by amending the 1934 Telecommunications Act and adding the new Title VIII. This new classification would “permanently codify into law the ‘four corners’ of net neutrality” by banning providers from controlling traffic quality and speed and forbidding them from participating in paid prioritization programs or charging access fees from edge providers.
On top of providing stable ground for net neutrality rules to be upheld in the future, the legislation also makes it illegal for providers to participate in “unfair or deceptive acts or practices.” It directs the FCC to investigate claims of anticompetitive behavior on behalf of consumers after receiving their complaints. Transparency requirements are heightened for providers as well, as companies must publicly disclose information regarding their network practices to allow consumers to “make informed choices regarding use of such services.”
“The 21st Century Internet Act ... is a step in the right direction.”
In a statement, the Internet Association, an organization that represents internet companies like Facebook and Google, commended Coffman for his bill. “A majority of Americans agree that consumers should have access to the entire internet and ISPs should not be able to engage in blocking, throttling, or paid prioritization of traffic on the internet,” the group wrote. “The 21st Century Internet Act reflects these principles and is a step in the right direction.”
The legislation still needs to make leaps and bounds before it is considered on the floor, however. If House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) follows standard procedure and assigns the bill to the House Energy and Commerce Committee for consideration, it’s likely to go through a heavy amendment process under the chair of the communications and technology panel, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). Blackburn attempted to pass her own net neutrality solution earlier this year that outlined only two of the “four corners” Coffman is keen on reinstating.
This daunting process could be why Coffman decided to also become the first Republican to sign on to the Democrat-led discharge petition, which aims to force a vote on the House floor to roll back the FCC’s December decision to repeal net neutrality. The vote would utilize the 1996 Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to reverse any agency decision within 60 days being submitted to the legislature. “While my bill moves through the Congress, I am taking an ‘all of the above’ approach by simultaneously signing the discharge petition on the CRA, and introducing my bill,” Coffman said.
The Senate already passed the CRA measure with a 52-47 vote back in May. Shortly after, Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA) introduced it in the House where it currently sits at 176 signatures — and they’re all Democrats. The petition needs 218 members total in order to force the vote, and if all those who signed on also voted to approve it, the measure would move on to the president’s desk. In the first few weeks of its introduction, lawmakers flocked to sign the petition, but as time has passed, that excitement has tapered off. Coffman’s announcement has the potential to rally Republicans to push the petition across the bare majority threshold necessary to take the measure to the floor.
Still, it will be months before the bills can make real progress in Congress. The House leaves for August recess next week and won’t head back to the Hill until September.