The FCC's Net neutrality rules are slated to go into effect today, but the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday launched a sneak attack that could strip the agency of its ability to actually enforce the regulations that protect an open Internet.
The rules approved by the FCC in February and published to the Federal Register in April reclassify broadband as a utility under Title II of the Communications Act and prohibit ISPs from throttling content or implementing paid prioritization schemes that would create Internet fast lanes.
So now, the cable companies are going to their contingency plan: having their allies in Congress move to hamstring the FCC, burying their attack in three riders to a must-pass House appropriations bill. The amendments prohibit the new rules from being enforced until the court cases against them are decided -- which could take years, giving Net neutrality opponents enough time to dismantle the rules under a new administration -- and forbid the FCC from using any government funds to protect and promote an open Internet. (Another rider to the bill prevents the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) from implementing "any rule, regulation, or order regarding the disclosure of political contributions," all the better to obfuscate money trails to politicians.)
As an added kick in the teeth, the $20.2 billion budget bill -- which funds the Treasury Department, the federal judiciary, and other major government agencies in addition to the FCC and SEC -- slashes the FCC's 2016 budget, allocating $25 million less than it received in 2015 and $73 million less than the agency requested.
"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.
Net neutrality is one of those increasingly rare issues on which a clear majority of Americans agree. But House Republicans are determined to thwart the wishes of the FCC, the White House, and a majority of Americans, in defense of cable giants' "right" to block and throttle Internet traffic if they choose.
"Congress doesn't get it. Millions of Americans fought for Net neutrality, and they won," said Evan Greer, campaign director for Fight for the Future. "It's time for the cable companies to stop looking for favors from Washington and actually focus on providing the thing their customers want: faster, more reliable service."
Barbara van Schewick, a professor at Stanford Law School, agreed. By threatening to undo Net neutrality rules through a backdoor, "the bill represents a dangerous power grab that undermines the judicial process and disregards the will of the American people," she said.
The remarkable thing is the cable companies themselves seem to have changed their tune and are no longer warning that they'll hold off on improvements to their networks if the rules are enforced.
Charter Communications CEO Tom Rutledge told FCC chairman Wheeler last week that "the commission's decision to reclassify broadband Internet access under Title II has not altered Charter's approach of investing significantly in its network to deliver cutting edge services."
Meanwhile, there's been a flurry of new interconnection deals between ISPs and Internet backbone providers aimed at improving the efficiency of traffic and creating additional capacity. Cogent had threatened to use the new Net neutrality rules to file complaints about AT&T and Verizon, but instead those companies have signed deals "allowing customers to continue to experience high-quality performance and network reliability."
The same has happened with Level 3 and AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast. "It's almost as if the new rules have forced cable companies to play fairly," said The Register. Imagine that.
Free Press is urging people to call their Congressional representatives. "Unlike other threats that have emerged in Congress, this is particularly troubling because it's hidden deep inside a big funding package that the House needs to move so that the government can continue operating."