Analysis When the Democrats took over the House of Representatives in America, one of the first things that the House Energy and Commerce Committee did was call a hearing on net neutrality. We had a familiar feeling of dread at the time.
But it's OK, everyone, because yesterday that session, featuring two former heads of federal comms watchdog the FCC, solved the net neutrality problem once and for all – and we have Republican congressmen to thank for it.
In a increasingly rare sign of willingness to compromise, former Republican chair of the committee Greg Walden (R-OR) – a man who has done as much as anyone to turn net neutrality from an obscure tech policy issue into the latest installment in America's culture wars – told the hearing: "I acknowledge there might've been times when our side should have accepted some offers, but the same could be true, instead, for the other side."
He then, humbly, solved the problem: "That's why I have introduced the offer I made in 2015, which codifies the FCC’s protections so they are not subject to changing administrations and commissions."
In fact the Republicans have gone to the trouble of producing not one or two but three different bills they assured everyone was the foundation on which this issue can finally be laid to rest.
So there you go, it's all done but the signing. Phew. Go back to sleep America, net neutrality is sorted.
What's that? You want to know what's in these bills? Don't worry about that, it's all good: Some wording, a compromise, it's fine, now off you go.
Ok, well, since you insist: Walden has said the legislation will include all the protections everyone is worried about – blocking, throttling and paid prioritization. ISPs won't be allowed to do them. Done. It's a wonder we didn't all agree to this before instead of the years of argument.
There's only one tiny detail: internet access will still be considered a "Title I" information service and not revert to being Title II. It's a minor thing. Very technical. Not worth worrying about.
Except of course someone was worrying about it. For some reason, the committee invited Mozilla's COO Denelle Dixon along and she set about ruining the spirit of compromise just because her organization is suing the FCC for reversing the previous rules with the entire lawsuit built around this Title I/II distinction.
Republicans pointed out that the proposed bill would changed the definition of Title I (written in 1934) to authorize the FCC to oversee complaints. But party-pooper Dixon told the committee that the rules outlined wouldn't adequately protect consumers because the federal regulator, the FCC, would not have any oversight powers under Title I.
In other words, people would have to identify and prove wrongdoing on the part of cable providers/ISPs after the fact and then drag the company through the FCC for retribution. If it was under Title II, the FCC would be able to set rules and pro-actively stop any efforts to undermine net neutrality.
Pure semantics, of course. The FCC would always vigorously investigate and challenge complaints that showed its rules had been broken. What about mobile phone companies selling location data, you say? Just because FCC chair Ajit Pai has repeatedly refused to investigate the sale of personal data and so encouraged companies to sell specially protected information designated as emergency use only. That's doesn't mean the same would happen with internet access. No way.
Here we go
And then, just to demonstrate what a firm grasp Congressman have on the issue of net neutrality these days and to make it plain that the issue hasn't be sucked into impossible partisan point-scoring, Representatives John Shimkus (R-IL) and Bill Flores (R-WY) asked how net neutrality applied to the Mexican border wall.
Data streams from drones that provide information on drug smuggling and human trafficking have to be allowed to get that data out as fast as possible. Wouldn't net neutrality risk upsetting that, he asked.
The answer is no, as former FCC chair Tom Wheeler pointed out, because there was already a "public safety" clause in the previous rules. But that wasn't the point in the question of course because this is Washington DC.
Our vulture listened to four hours of obtuse net neutrality legal blah-blah so you don't have toREAD MORE
The other former FCC chair Michael Powell – who is now head of an ISP industry lobbying organization – felt it was a good point. Border security was in fact "a perfect example of why we should be careful about what we mean about 'no prioritization.' There are societal uses that we will all agree should enjoy a higher priority over other uses."
And then we were off about that damn wall again.
Of course the actual answer to net neutrality is for everyone to stop messing about with Title I and Title II – distinctions that were draw up long before the internet even existed – and create a new Title definition that adequately reflects the digital era that we now live in.
But that is about as likely to happen as Congress is to stop playing partisan politics at every single possible opportunity. Fortunately, outside advocates were much more reasonable about the opportunity for compromise with one of the them, none-profit Free Press, letting its followers know about this exciting development in the most measured terms.
"Republicans in Congress just dropped three totally B.S. fake net neutrality bills — and we need to expose them for what they really are and stop them in their tracks," it tweeted. ®